How many of you make time for play in your lives? Maybe you’ve forgotten how to play or maybe you don’t realize how important play is. Play helps us learn to trust, develop empathy, share, and cooperate, it increases personal resilience and self-regulation, and leads to sustained optimism. “Most obviously, it is intensely pleasurable. It energizes us and enlivens us. It eases our burdens. It renews our natural sense of optimism and opens us up to new possibilities” (Brown, 2009).
Play is important for pups like me, too. We learn to play when we are puppies and through play, we learn important social skills and life skills. My pawrents knew how important socialization was for me as a young pup and took me on lots of play dates. I learned pretty quick when I was playing too rough – my playmate would growl or nip at me, or walk away and stop playing with me. This was an important life lesson that taught me empathy and how to be gentle with my friends. Play reduces stress and anxiety in dogs, just like it does in humans. A study on dogs and play by Bristol University found a strong correlation between play deprivation and increased behavioral issues like anxiety, aggression, whining, jumping up, and not coming when called. Dogs need to engage in play just like humans in order to keep them both mentally and physically fit. I have a basket of toys and puzzles in my office for when I need a play break. Have you seen the look of pure joy on my face when I race down the hallway after a ball someone threw for me? Or how focused I get when I’m working on a puzzle? Or heard me play growl and bark when playing tug-o-war? Playing is when I am happiest and feel most connected to my people.
Starting this summer, I challenge you to increase one-on-one playtime with your child, letting them take the lead. Here are my rules: 1) Just ten minutes each day! 2) No teaching, instructing, or questioning them. Avoid competitive games, books, and TV. Do something interactive, creative, and fun – like Legos, Play-Doh, blocks, or drawing. Find out what your kid loves, and get excited about what excites them! This kind of child-led, attuned play helps children feel seen, heard, and valued. Playing in this way with your child will help a lot of challenging, fear-based behaviors go away. When we’re afraid, we can’t learn, grow, or connect. But play disarms fear. This tells me, that we just need to play more! It’s impossible to feel joy and fear at the same time. Playful interaction promotes connection and mindfulness and is an antidote to fear, anxiety, and anger. What a simple solution.
We all start out naturally knowing how to play. Kids and puppies don’t need instructions on how to play, but something happens when you humans get older. I think somewhere along the way you get the message that play is a waste of time, unproductive, and you’re made to feel guilty about playing. Or you think that you’re much too busy and there’s no time for play. You silly humans, don’t you know play is just as important for adults as it is for your kiddos? As Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. once said, “Men do not quit playing because they grow old; they grow old because they quit playing.”
Look back on your play history. What used to bring you joy as a child? I challenge you to go and do that today! Make time for play in your life. I’ll leave you with one last thought from Dr. Stuart Brown, a researcher and founder of the National Institute for Play:
“I have found that remembering what play is all about and making it part of our daily lives are probably the most important factors in being a fulfilled human being. The ability to play is critical not only to being happy, but also to sustaining social relationships and being a creative, innovative person.”
Have a wonderful, playful summer my furiends.
Brown, S. (2009). Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul. Avery Trade, New York.