If there’s one member of our household taking these uncertain times in his stride, it’s our black-furred, silver-pawed cockapoo, Rupert—whose playfulness is getting him through heatwaves and lockdowns alike. Rupert’s joy seems based on the fact he has legs and he can run, and with his tongue out and ears flapping, he dashes through the darkest of days. Most afternoons he waltzes into my office with a sock in his mouth, tail wagging, coaxing me to come and play.
The Benefits of Play
Play has become a serious topic in recent decades with researchers finding it holds a score of benefits for us humans:
- It helps us socialise. Those play fights of childhood helped us learn the difference between fun and pain, and shared jokes, sports, board games and more help us bond as adults
- It helps us imagine new possibilities. Both the steam train and the plane started out as toys
- It helps us solve problems. Graeme Clark, inventor of the bionic ear, solved a design problem for the device while playing with a shell and a blade of grass, stumbling onto a way to get the electrode into the spiral of the ear
- It helps relieve stress and depression by triggering endorphins, the natural feel-good chemicals in our body
- It makes us smarter. Play stimulates brain activity, aiding cognition and preventing memory loss
- It builds empathy. An extreme example: while studying young murderers, play researcher Stuart Brown found a common thread of a lack of play in their childhoods, leading to insensitivity to others’ pain
Play energises us, fosters optimism, strengthens relationships and enhances our creativity. When Rupert coaxes me to play, he’s in fact giving me an opportunity to become more healthy and whole.
The Joy List
The link between play and well-being first hit home for me a couple of years ago. Exhausted from overwork, I realised I hadn’t just forgotten to play, I had forgotten how to play. My remedy was to write a Joy List—a list of all the things I loved to do, things that brought energy and delight. Here are a few things I included:
- Bike riding in the woods
- Browsing second-hand bookshops
- Doing photography
- Arthouse films
- Discovering new cities
- Journaling in cafes
- Visiting art galleries
- Long walks and mini-pilgrimages
- DIY projects
- Live music
I started scheduling some of these activities into each week and soon started feeling human again. If you were to write a Joy List what activities would be on it? Craft, painting, pottery making? Sport, board games, wood turning? I’ve discovered it’s worth making a list of such joy-bringing activities and intentionally incorporating them into our diaries.
Play as a Spiritual Practice
There’s a delightful scene in C.S. Lewis’ children’s book The Magician’s Nephew describing the creation of its magical world, Narnia. It begins with a lone voice singing in the darkness which is joined by a chorus of others when thousands of stars suddenly appear. The voice is that of the majestic lion Aslan, who brings forth mountains, animals and more by his song. Echoing the Book of Job where stars are said to have “sung” and angels “shouted for joy” as the universe was made, it paints creation as a joyful, even playful, event.
As Christians understand it, God has never needed a universe. You could say it’s his joyful act of play. And if we’ve been made in God’s likeness, as scripture suggests, it makes sense to me that we’ll be healthiest when our lives include some bike riding, photo taking, kite flying, pottery making, or whatever playful pursuit brings us joy. We’ve been made to play.
And so in addition to prayer, scripture reading, meditation and the rest, what if we saw play as a spiritual practice? An activity that helps us imitate God’s playfulness and makes us more whole?
This is an important reminder for me at the moment, because there hasn’t been enough play in this household during lockdown. Apart from Rupert, that is, whose tail is wagging even now. Time to revisit that Joy List—and go and play tug with a sock.