The Importance of Play

It can be easy to forget the importance of play as an adult, but taking time to do something you find enjoyable is essential for your well-being.

Kids playing

Children play frequently, finding freedom in exploring the world. Even as adults, we must recognize the importance of play in our lives and remember to enjoy the unexpected.

Photo by Fotolia/godfer

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Mary Anne Radmacher offers inspirations to help you live large from the heart in Lean Forward Into Your Life (Conari Press, 2014), from living with intention and listening attentively to taking time for yourself and remembering to play with abandon. Essays and anecdotes are followed by suggestions for ways to incorporate leaning forward into your life, one small step at a time. The following excerpt is from “Play With Abandon.”

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live boldly. laugh loudly. love truly.
play as often as you can.
work as smart as you are able.
share your heart as deeply as you can reach.
as you awaken
may your dreams
greet you by name and
may you answer, “yes.”
as you walk
may all your angels
gather at your shoulders and
may you confidently know
they stand with you.
as you rest
may all your endeavors
know contentment and peace.

My two finest teachers in regard to play have been a stout labrador, who is four, and a fiery redhead who is now eight. These two have conspired to invite, “let’s play together” to spring strongly and easily to my lips. I’ve come to understand that really means the same thing as, “I love you.” Those three words come forward—open doors to a stronghold, a winter-wilderness fortress. They come forward saying, “I offer you my own best strength, in spending playful time with you, in loving you I offer you the same comforts, security, abilities, and opportunities which I offer myself. My doors are swung wide for you and here is the key. Come to my castle never as a prisoner or emissary but as a reigning monarch of your own wild kingdom. And only and ever the title you hold within my walls is “treasured friend.””

What I appreciate about my red-headed friend, Taylina, and my dog, Judah, is their loyalty partnered with their truth-telling. Both of them let me know in their own gentle ways when I am being less than myself, when I am not feeling well…and they stay by me, nonetheless. They don’t really need me, but they want me. That’s the finest quality of presence. A function of choice, not of obligation or requirement. Funny, reflective, compassionate, attentive. Never stingy with their affection. Smart enough to get me to do what they want me to do and make it seem like my idea.

There are many things that Judah teaches me that Taylina can’t—because his ears are longer, like velvet, and he has four legs instead of two. These are simply anatomical advantages. However, Taylina can wield a paintbrush in a way Judah can only envy. Her creativity and ingenuity inspire me all the time. And Taylina dances in ways that leave both Judah and me breathless.

They both teach me how and invite me to play. Taylina invites me into active, creative, moving play. And Judah takes me to the open grass and helps me play in stillness. He forces me, by virtue of his one-hundred-and-thirty-five-pound-labrador frame sitting down and not wishing to move, to smell the wind and the scents it carries, to notice the smaller creatures at play, and to simply be patient and enjoy the weather—whatever that weather might be.

My friend Von informs me that grass is the outdoor scent museum for dogs. In much the same way I would not want to be tugged away from my wonder at Van Gogh’s Starry Night, neither does Judah wish to be hurried in his judicious appreciation for all smells grass. Judah is an able and schooled epicure of grassness. He is also a highly qualified instructor of play.

Jane Kirkpatrick, the award-winning author, is a friend of mine. She’s one of the most disciplined writers I know. I can hear her snorting when I say this, but it’s true. In the midst of a field of incredible life challenges, Jane diligently ploughs her craft and presents amazing novels set in a historical context. We’ve mused, on occasion, about the demands of a writing life. In this piece, which Jane wrote just for this book, she muses on the women in her life and what they each taught her about play.

“My German grandmother played with abandon. She worked hard, too, raising two families, helping her husband run two photographic studios, and becoming a fine photographer herself. She may have found joy in taking pictures of people and gardens but I never saw her photographs; just my grandfather’s. But I know she played because I heard her.

“She couldn’t read a note of music but she’d been given that rare gift of perfect pitch and the ability to sit before ivory keys and choose chords we all sang to, every Christmas in her four-story Minneapolis home. It’s one of my fondest memories, watching her play that high-back piano, the workman’s-size muscles of her forearms only slightly out of place on her less than five-foot-tall frame. She also took us to the Hennepin Avenue Methodist Church on Christmas morning where we heard a pipe organ so grand our feet rattled to its throb. Her face, lifted to the heavens as she sang Charles Wesley hymns, was filled with joy. Music made her play.

“My older sister played too. She loved snowmobiling especially in spring powder up on McArthur Rim, the edge of an old volcano in Oregon’s Cascade Mountains. She turned work into play by feeding hay to their many horses with her four-wheel vehicle pulling a wagon behind her, sometimes with a grandchild riding high atop the alfalfa bales, a dog or two trotting along beside. Her greatest play was on horseback. She could have the worst day ever then transform it all by spending an hour in the saddle riding through rabbit brush and beneath Ponderosa Pine looking out over the seven snowcapped mountains of the Cascades outside their Central Oregon ranch.

“When at forty-eight she was diagnosed with a rare multi-system disorder that rendered her muscles so out of her control that in her final days we often had to lift her eyelids just so she could see us, it was being set up on her horse, her feeding tube adjusted while her son held her steady as he sat behind her, that helped her play. She could feel herself alive on top that animal, feel the gelding’s muscles move as she leaned toward his neck. She was “centered” she said, her face a wide smile. I worried out loud once to the doctor about her falling off as she leaned so precariously at times, and she said, “It’s the greatest joy of her life. Wouldn’t you like to be doing what you love right up until your death?” The week before my sister died, she rode her horse sitting in front of her son when in earlier years he would have sat safely in front of her. Roles reversed but the play still there.

“My mom played less than anyone that I can remember. As both a nurse and dairy farmer’s wife raising three children, she found little time for play. She made lists of tasks. She performed private-duty nursing in my early years, often dressing in that white cap and leaving our farm in the night to help someone else. Later she administered nursing-home services, supervising nurses. She’d come home to the farm, change her clothes then help my dad with “chores.”

“I do remember my parents getting dressed up for square dancing, something to warm them on cold Wisconsin nights, a blend of music and movement. She liked to crochet and knit and did that while the rest of us listened to stories on the radio. She wouldn’t have called that “play”; just making good use of her time.

In later years, her stoic disposition tempered with funny facial expressions gave pleasure to her caregivers in the assisted living facility where she and my father passed their final days. It was then I discovered that she loved reading and she saw that as play.

“As I look back it was inside the comfort of her faith where my mother played the most. She laughed well after church services chatting with her friends. She listened and discussed a pastor’s thoughts finding joy in the challenges of new ways of thinking about scripture. She read books, novels even. She attended women’s retreats and giggled like a school girl in the comfort of women of faith.

After she died, I found her school autograph book where she listed things she loved as a child. “Violets. Music. Skating.” Flowers? Music? Movement? Who knew? We had played music for her in her last hours and her last movement was when she turned her head to the old hymn “Softly and Tenderly, Jesus is Calling.” She leaned into the music and smiled just before she died.

“At my mother’s funeral, we found occasion to play despite the confusion over the gravedigger not having time to dig the grave. My nephew, who knew him, called to say he’d seen his backhoe just sitting by the house so why didn’t he have time to “dig my grandma’s grave.” Apologies and plans followed as can happen in a little country cemetery. The grave was dug. But her casket had to be placed in the ground by five strong men rather than the hydraulic system useful with a level grave. Mom and Dad’s grave site graced a hillside looking out over a beautiful meadow. “Hang on to my belt here,” the undertaker told my brother-in-law. “Keep me from slipping in while I help lower this casket.” We watched as that belt got pulled higher and higher and my brother-in-law dug his heels into the soft dirt to keep the man from tumbling into the tomb. A wedgie of gargantuan proportions occurred right before our eyes.

“We finally could not hold back the laughter knowing Mom would be laughing, too, as they settled her casket in the ground without men falling in behind it. Somehow the tears were more cleansing mixed in with laughter.

“Music, movement, faith, that’s how the women in my life played. They’re all gone now and I look back to see the threads of their playing inside the stories of my life.

“I love music. My sister and I sang duets when we were young. An aunt gave me piano lessons, but the flute became my instrument of choice in high school. In college I joined a chorus, just one voice in many where I found an easy peace while the world around me swirled with news of war and waning wisdom. Before we moved to our remote ranch where we live now, we bought an old piano, refinished it. We carried it first into our country home. I don’t play it much. I like what it reminds me of when I look at it. Instead, I sometimes turn the car volume up as high as it will go, wind the windows down, open the skylight, and let Josh Groban or the Los Angeles Philharmonic or Willie Nelson or Maroon 5 blare away to me and the mule deer as I head home on our twisting reptile road, singing along if the words aren’t in Italian.

“Movement. My walks apply. I sometimes deprive myself of how good a walk can make me feel, think I have no time, contracts must be met, duty calls. But then the puppy puts his paws on my computer keyboard or sticks his furry face into mine and as my sister with her horses, I find myself alive walking, working the dog, watching him run along the rimrocks while I stride between those ancient reddish rocks and the music of the river. I feel at play then, as much as someone who took up golf or dancing or gardening. I am leaning into life with movement.

“My faith. These women leave a legacy of a joyous faith, not one of doom and gloom or waiting for the worst. When I look at this month alone I find I’ve found the greatest joy in the company of women who would describe themselves as being on a spiritual journey. At a woman’s retreat we laughed over lingerie and indigestion and someone noted that surely God must wonder at the things that make us women laugh. At a book signing, I played with women who had not only read my books but so many others that I loved, too. Like a menu of tasty morsels, they listed treasured titles, the characters and themes. Their eyes sparkled as they talked about how stories nurture us, heal us, and make us whole. The titles and images danced around the room as we recalled modern parables. Some days, I call my grandchildren just to hear them tell me of their lives, or I call my women friends and we find laughter over what the dog has done, what our children said, a foolish thing we did. Even reading greeting cards will make me laugh and connect me to a perfect stranger standing beside me at the card shelf. Such playing provides fuel for when I face a loss and I can hear the gasp of grieving of my friends knowing they are there for me though they live miles away.

“These moments of connected joy cradled in the faith of understanding describe for me what the Apostle Peter meant when he wrote that we have each “tasted of the Lord’s kindness.” It is a human thing to play, to taste such kindnesses.

Music, movement, faith: they all speak of intentions offered and received. They say “play with abandon.” Doing so lets me lean in not only to the goodness of the world but to my inner world, my memories of strong women and how their playing feeds my soul. Play—with abandon. It’s a gift I hope I can pass on.”

Practice Play in Your Life

Every once in a while make no plans. Have the nerve to walk out the door and let possibilities introduce themselves. Wander. Imagine. Stare. Be surprised: parades will find you. Travel—in your armchair, with a book, on a boat, in a car, in your thoughts, on a bike or any vehicle that will take you from the walls of your own knowing to someplace other. Other gestures, smells, words, tastes, views. Look upon the world through windows other than your own. Learn to be good company for yourself. A bit of joy passes by because “there was no one to go with.” A party of one is sometimes the best time. Dance by yourself, anywhere there is room in your house. There is something invigorating, even a bit magic, to music, to movement and a touch of laughter. Go ahead: dance. Enjoy participating in the unexpected. A little turn of whimsy is a gift: a quick, cool rain shower on a hot, dusty day. Enjoy flowers for no reason, visit an old friend, greet a stranger, tell a sweet little joke in line at the grocery store. (What did the snail say as he climbed on the back of the turtle? wheeeeeeee!!!!) Play can happen anywhere . . . you are the toy. Laugh.


Reprinted with permission from Lean Forward Into Your Life: Listen Hard, Live With Intention, and Play With Abandon by Mary Anne Radmacher and published by Conari Press, 2014.