Play, a Crucial (and Oft Forgotten) Spiritual Practice


Photo credit: Pixabay

Just as nature repeats itself, revisiting what it did a year before, so we often need to relearn things we thought we once knew. When we do this we often gain a slightly different perspective or find an insight roots itself a bit more deeply in our lives. That’s happened to me recently with the subject of play, which I’d like to revisit here. How does play affect us and why does it matter?

What Is Play Anyway?

Scientists of various stripes tell us that when children, whether human or nonhuman, play they are practicing roles they see adults “playing.” Young deer butt heads, while kittens practice fighting and stalking. My granddaughter constantly plays mommy, baby, or doctor. By playing the young prepare themselves for adulthood.

When they play, playmates enjoy the rhythm and repetition of doing the same things over and over. Yet, they soon would get bored if they followed a rote script. A large part of the fun consists of never knowing how things will end up. A good playmate introduces serendipity, making up new scenarios or changing the rules unexpectedly. Play develops creativity. As a result playmates develop a joyful expectation of the unknown and the ability to embrace new circumstances. These constitute important attitudes for a full and productive adult life.

Adults and Play

The problem is, all too often we as adults face circumstances that demand certainty. We have to provide food for our families or complete a project by a given date. We face consequences if we don’t. Our society encourages us to make lists, to set objectives and timelines. We do this to bring order and control into our lives and to be “productive.” These constitute essential adult skills. In this environment play appears to be a luxury only children can afford. Adults have to “grow up.”

Yet, even in the animal world, which is fraught with the need to ensure survival, adults play. When I watch adult otters slide down slick rocks and cavort about, I have to believe they’ve forgotten fishing for awhile and are having a grand time. Similarly, when I watch my neighbor’s donkey bat around a tire swing I somehow I don’t think it’s trying to check tire-swinging off its to do list.

I think adult humans also truly need to play. Spiritual teachers in the Judeo-Christian tradition make a point that we need to relearn what it means to be childlike. They encourage us to let go of our plans and instead to trust:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
and do not rely on your own insight.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.  (Prov 3: 5&6)

I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me…
I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother (Psalm 131: 1b & 2a)

Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 18:2-4)

Photo credit: Pixabay

To become truly creative productive adults these teachers assert that we need to learn to trust the ultimate source of all creativity. This requires practice, over and over again letting go of our agendas and illusions of control. To be mature adults we need to learn the essence of being a child. We need to re-learn how to play.

Learning to Play

How can we do this? Totally taking off one day a week is one way. Refraining from any activity that day that enables us to feel that we’ve accomplished something (like mowing the overdue lawn or finally getting to that letter) reminds us of at least two very important realities: 1) that ultimately any good things we accomplish we do with God’s (or some higher power’s) assistance, and 2) that the world will do just fine for a day without us. Taking a day off a week where we rule out any sort of effort that feels like “work” or that we do because we feel we “have to” gives us space to play. It gives us permission to see what it is like to let go of being in charge and to trust in the really big Mom or Dad. It opens the door to a playground if we will just enter it.

So on that day (or even for just a couple hours if that’s all we’ve got) we can try doing something totally whimsical. Dropping watercolors on paper and bouncing the paper around to see what happens. Turning over rocks to see what might be hiding there. Being silly. Dancing without worrying what others might think. We can take time to be quiet, to listen to the wind or watch the clouds. To be recharged and refreshed. We can do what children do.

Play. Have fun. Run around. Sit on God’s lap.

The Center for Religion and Environment at The University of the South


Author: Robert "Robin" Gottfried

Director, Center for Religion and Environment at Sewanee: The University of the South, and Professor Emeritus of Economics at Sewanee. Contemplative Christian, musician, blogger for the Huffington Post on religion and environment, and hiker living on the Cumberland Plateau of Tennessee.

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