Adults Need to Play Even More Than Kids

By | February 11, 2019

The other day, I ended up in a snowball fight. After setting some parameters–like no hits above the neck–I allowed myself to get into the experience. So did my eight-year-old son (and snowball-fight opponent.) Don’t get me wrong–throwing snowballs doesn’t come naturally, to me. In fact, it was probably the hardest thing I did all week. I find playing extremely difficult and I know I’m not alone. But because it’s hard, I make a concerted effort to play every day.

Playing is a relational superpower. Most adults don’t do play. They’re too busy worrying. Adults engage in a range of activities to try to feel less anxious and more in control. They eat, drink, binge on various substances, accomplish important things, go to the gym, spend money, get pedicures and manicures, push buttons on their keyboards and phones. But these activities don’t constitute true “play.”

The play adults need more of is the kind of play that comes naturally to kids. It’s creative, embodied, mutually engaged and engaging. It turns a piece of paper into an elaborate snowflake, crayons into a multi-layered black universe you need to scrape with the edge of a quarter to get to the rainbow stars, cushions into a secret hideout, thin air into a game of tag or hide-and-go-seek. It has no purpose, is spontaneous, elicits loud vocalizations and raucous laughter, and invariably results in some sort of mess. It may involve a moderate risk: a scraped knee, dirty clothes, down feathers filling the air, something mistakenly torn or stained, intense physical exertion. It folds just the right amount of delight into just the right amount of friendly competition, just the right amount of fun with pushing oneself to an edge.

Playing like this–for me–is a huge effort. I’ve been thoroughly “adultified.” My adultification process has affected every aspect of who I am: my mind, body, and spirit. It can’t realistically be undone. Maybe, arguably, it shouldn’t be. I am an adult. I work, take care of things, pay taxes, vote, make sure my family members eat, wear clean clothes, attend school, and have a safe space to vent when things go wrong at work. I arrive places on time, weigh options, pay bills, get the pipe’s bled before the winter storm, keep the gas tank full, and put everyone’s passports into the correct pocket in the carry on luggage.

But because I’m a couples’ therapist, and because one of my greatest aspirations is to be a relational superhero in my corner of the universe, I take play very seriously. I know it’s a superpower that can be cultivated. When adultification overtakes a person to the point that they forget the importance of play, it’s easy to lose touch with the deeper layers of their own life-force. When that happens, joy, energy, generosity, tolerance and warmth also diminish.

I see this in the couples who come into my office, saying, “We just stopped having fun.”

Adultification needs to be counterbalanced and managed with serious, down-and-dirty play. Just as certain chronic diseases can be managed with pain medication, if you’ve been adultified, you should consider putting yourself on a daily play regimen. You don’t need to have a kid in your life to do this. You can turn up the music and sing loudly in your car, you can dance in a store aisle, you can get (or borrow) a dog and throw a frisbee in a field. You can jump up and down in a crowd yelling, “I’m defying gravity” until you’re breathless. Find human play partners, not screens. Tell someone a joke. Shoot some hoops. There are countless opportunities for play in our lives once we start diligently looking for them. Take time every day to counterbalance your responsible, cautious, task-oriented, relentless purposefulness with some form of silliness, ideally in a back-and-forth exchange with another flesh-and-blood human being.

It took me three or four good throws, and twice as many hits from my pint-sized opponent–some on my nether regions while I was bent over gathering snow–before I finally let go of my adult persona and found my play sweet spot. Sometimes connecting with the capacity to play takes time, especially if you’ve been being nothing but an adult for too many days in a row. There’s nothing quite like hitting your “play groove.” I finally stopped patting my cell phone in my jacket pocket to make sure it was still there. My son and I laughed uncontrollably. After 20 minutes or so we returned to the car, ice in our hair and shirts, our gloves soaked through. My fingers tingled from the cold. I felt happy and alive.
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