Recently, my daughter’s family came for a visit.
One evening, the three younger grandkids, a girl and two boys, ages 8, 6, and 4, took turns running around the house while I sat on the porch and timed each race. In between these sprints, they climbed trees, the granddaughter danced and sang a song from the old flick “High Society” on the porch, the boys dashed around the yard shooting off cap pistols, which were impressively loud, and I sat in my chair, feeling exhausted just from watching this spectacle. Minutes later found me with the two boys in the backyard, popping off a BB gun with a white paper cup atop a cardboard box as the target.
Meanwhile, the older kids are inside, playing solitaire, watching “I Love Lucy,” and in the case of the oldest grandson, reading Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray.”
This hubbub is always a welcome change from my normal routine and solitude—to say I sleep well at night when they are here is putting it mildly—and I relish every moment.
That evening, when the grandkids were darting across the grass clamoring for my attention, I began thinking about the importance and meaning of play, not so much for children but for adults.
A Rare Commodity
My online dictionary defines the verb play as to “engage in activity for recreation and enjoyment rather than a serious or practical purpose.” Throughout the week, as my grandchildren colored pictures at the dining room table, zoomed down the sliding board behind the house, or kicked a rugby ball in the front yard, that definition fit them like a glove. Play came as naturally to them as breathing.
But what about the rest of us?
Like many of my readers, when I was struggling in my middle years to earn a living while at the same time helping my wife raise children, play was not a conscious part of my day’s agenda. The kids and I sometimes shot a basketball in the driveway, my wife and I enjoyed Saturday mornings at the soccer field where we watched the games and visited with other parents, and for a few years, we joined in a weekly volleyball game in the backyard of a local physician. Otherwise, play took a backseat, and rightly so, to the exigencies of the workaday world.
And now? At first glance, play as defined above has gone missing from my vocabulary. As I considered the idea, however, I realized that most adults, including me, do play, but in ways different from children.
Games and Hobbies
Many of us play various games—golf, tennis, softball, and so on—all of which fit the definition. Unlike kids, we may have ulterior motives for such activities such as physical fitness, but they remain forms of play. The same holds true with card games and board games among family members and friends.
Some of us, particularly older people, enjoy hobbies, which are also a form of play. One good friend who is semi-retired reads four to five hours a day, preferring in particular histories and biographies. Several people of my acquaintance enjoy gardening. One woman I know loves studying weather patterns and sounds like a television reporter when she offers a report on the heat index, wind speeds, and possible storms. Another began going to the gym and workout classes several times a week for health reasons, but now enjoys this exercise so much that it might qualify as a hobby.
These recreations can bring enormous relief from stress. (The very word “recreation” means to re-create.) Winston Churchill, for example, might serve as a quintessential hobbyist. He became fascinated with masonry and, after receiving instruction, often found pleasure in building brick walls around his home, Chartwell. Later, he took up painting watercolors and became an excellent amateur artist. Both activities afforded him the opportunity to “play,” to escape his responsibilities as a writer and statesman for a brief time and have some fun.
When children gather with their friends, most often they spend the time in active recreation. They play with their Lego sets, dress up like pirates or princesses, throw a football, and climb on the playground equipment at the local park.
Adults visit in a different way. They meet a friend in a coffee shop, converse on the park benches while the children are on the swing sets, or enjoy suppers in one another’s homes. Some adults belong to book clubs, gathering at a specific time, usually with refreshments, to discuss a pre-selected book. One group of grown siblings I know hit the phones every Thursday evening to talk over a passage they’ve all read in scripture.
Are these get-togethers with friends and family a form of grownup play? According to our definition, they seem to qualify as occasions bringing pleasure and even joy.
Leisure and Contemplation
A good number of years ago, I read Joseph Pieper’s “Leisure: The Basis of Culture.” Published in 1948, and probably even more pertinent to today’s social media culture than when it first appeared, Pieper contends that leisure and its companion, contemplation, are vital for sustaining any civilization. He points out that modernity is obsessed with work, whereas in earlier times, men and women recognized that true leisure was an ingredient vital to our health and humanity.
Ignatius Press, the current publisher of “Leisure: The Basis of Culture,” sums up Pieper’s ideas this way:
“Pieper maintains that our bourgeois world of total labor has vanquished leisure, and issues a startling warning: Unless we regain the art of silence and insight, the ability for non-activity, unless we substitute true leisure for our hectic amusements, we will destroy our culture—and ourselves.”
Are leisure and contemplation, silence and insight, part of adult play? On the face of it, the answer must be no. Such contemplation seems intended for a serious purpose.
A Deeper Look
And yet …
Think back on childhood. Can you remember any magical moments when the stars in the sky overwhelmed you with their beauty, when a path through a forest seemed a marvelous tunnel of sunshine and shadows, when the doors and windows of a city street portended mysteries about the people who lived in those buildings?
In such moments of childhood contemplation, when we are alone and silent, we feel something big and powerful and wonderful behind our daily lives of school, meals, parents, siblings, and friends. An example: I can remember myself as a 5-year-old standing, in all places, in an abandoned, tumbledown garage next to the house we were renting. Sunlight was pouring through the dust-encrusted windows, discarded nails and bits of broken tools were scattered on a workbench, and the gray walls gave off a pleasant aroma of age, heat, and wood. In that dusty room were mystery and beauty, and though I then lacked the language to say so, for a few moments the magic of existence overwhelmed me.
We adults can experience this same wonder by sitting with a cup of coffee early in the morning and contemplating the day, taking a few moments to savor the dawn. We can find it in the face of a child or in a sunset. Within each of us, however, hidden away, is an inner child always at the ready to participate in this encounter with the miraculous. We will perform that act of appreciation more consciously than children, but with its gift of spontaneous joy, we can still consider it a form of play.
In his online article about the innocence and virtues of childhood, Itxu Diaz observes of the English writer G.K. Chesterton: “He never ceased to look at the world with the eyes of a newborn: ‘What was wonderful about childhood is that anything in it was a wonder.’”
Play, real play, brings not just recreation and enjoyment. It gives us the chance to experience joy, mystery, and the miraculous.
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust On Their Wings,” and two works of non-fiction, “Learning As I Go” and “Movies Make The Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.