By Leslie Lindsay
I’ll admit it: I hate to play. It’s too abstract, oftentimes silly, and sometimes not productive. So, why can’t “silly” and “abstract” also be productive?
These are just some–okay one–philosophical debate that comes to mind after closing Amy Fussleman’s new book, SAVAGE PARK: A Meditation on Play, Space, and Risk for Americans Who are Nervous, Distracted, and Afraid to Die (HMH, Jan 2015). But really, one could break that down into three distinct arguements: abstract, silly (as in not serious), and productivity, each with their own distinct qualities, attributes, and general ways of being. [Cover image from http://www.laserghost.com/#Savage-Park on 1.24.15]
As I write this, my own children (ages 7 and 9) are happily-uh-barking, squwaking, giggling, and creating their own secret language which they may or may not remember or employ tomorrow. They don’t care; they are having fun. And I have a moment to myself–although I share my space with a slumbering geriatric basset hound prone to horrific silent explosions of gas–but she and I are having fun; our sense of play is unique and not entirely based on someone else’s definition of play.
When I began work as a child/adolescent psych RN at a prestigious US institution, I met my preceptor’s [trainer] hopeful gaze as I bubbled over with ideas for small group instruction. I was 22 and idealistic, what can I say? But she responded with a a hearty, “You are so creative! I bet you are good at playing.”
My enthusiam faltered. I nodded, “Oh yes.” I lied. I was on such a roll, wanted her to like me, to confirm that I was going to do what I was hired to do–a sort of hybrid play therapist-medication adminsterer-behavioral observationist-mediater-placator-redirecter. And so I tried to like play. I mean, how hard could it be? But you see, one is limited in the confines of an inpatient child-psych unit packed with educational toys, therapeutic games, “movies with a message” and no strings longer than 6-inches. Big deal. It’s not there can’t be fun or play, or time to be silly with what we did have. [image source: http://work.chron.com/skills-pertinent-psychiatric-nursing-7980.html on 1.24.15]
A former childhood friend-turned college roommate once said, “Leslie, you do not know how to play.” I pulled back. I was shocked. Where did she get off talking to me like this? “Don’t get me wrong,” she said, “You’re hugely creative, but in everything you do, you do…well, perfectly.”
I am sure my expression said it all. “What I mean is, if you create something artistic, it’s symmetrical.”
I nodded slowly. I was beginning to see what she was getting at.
Painting? Dumpsters? Planful? I scoffed.
“But–” I interrupted, “You don’t want to mess it up!”
Did you catch that? Mess it up? Okay, so the dresser was to be re-purposed into a VCR/TV stand (remember those?!) The top drawer would be removed and fitted with a piece of plywood cut and painted to create the space for the VCR. New hardware applied in shiny silver and a bold stripe bordered in white paint was to frame the cobalt blue base color. It would look like the Greek Isles. (image source: http://www.chicagoreader.com/Bleader/archives/2012/09/11/dumpster-diving retrieved 1.24.15)
I was excited; I was having fun. I was–dare I say it–playing. I couldn’t sleep that night after having mentally drafted my repurposing plans for the dresser. I woke early , the sun beaming into my room. My eyes flicked to the window then to the bedroom door. “My project!”
By nine that morning, I had slapped at least two coats of blue paint on the dresser and had trimmed a piece of plywood to create the interior shelf on which the VCR would rest. My roommate stood in the living room, wearing pajama pants and a scowl. “You’re up early,” she grumbled.
Okay, so maybe I negated the roommate code of no loud noises before 10 am, but really, how loud is paint? “I was excited to start working on this,” I raked a paint-splattered hand through my hair.
“Nothing–I mean nothing–gets me so excited that I get out of bed early.”
Was that an insult, or compliment? I chose to file it away as a compliment and continued to cheerily work on my TV stand while she padded to the kitchen to start a pot of coffee–coffee, I didn’t need because I was already expecting the high of creativity.
When I was employed at the fancy pants medical facility, we had a series of videos we showed the kids. There was one entitled, “Natural Highs,” or something like that. It was an alternative approach to drugs and alcohol. Instead of downing a 6-pack (or worse), one could exercise. Instead of smoking a joint, how about getting lost in visual art, or listening to some really moving music–better yet–make some music. I clung to this idea and infused it in all I did–and taught it to my patients.
And then I had my own kids. Kids like to play. I read Family Fun magazine like a novel. Frankly, I decided I could write those articles and come up with the fun myself. That, to me was the easy part. It was the actual getting down on the hands-and-knees part that made me want to run for the hills, stunted my abilities. It was messy. It was abstract. It was silly. You mean, make a mess, risk doing it incorrectly–or worse–create a parallel reality in which my play wasn’t as good as their play?
I remembered something else I had learned at Fancy Pants Med Center: You’ve got to let the kids direct the play. Sure, you need to be there. As an adult, it’s your job to help ensure their safety, help them negotiate social skills and problem-solve, but if you allow your child to initiate the play and you just go along with it, you may be suprised to find you are learning something about your child and you just might be having fun.
For more on this topic, check out my “other blog,” and also Amy Fusselman’s book, SAVAGE PARK (Jan 2015).