Friday, August 08, 2014

90 Days of Play

I've been thinking a lot lately about play. In June, as we neared the end of the school and extracurricular activity year, I asked Stellina if she wanted to continue with tap dance in the fall. This conversation took place in the dance school bathroom as she suited up for her final class. "En. Oh!" she said with uncharacteristic fervor. "I thought you liked tap?" I said. "I like it OK, but I just want to do nothing. No classes, no nothing." She made big X gestures with her arms. "I want to be home, just go where I want, see you and Daddy, play with Posy and Meow Meow. Just PLAY."

Then I read this, and a couple weeks later heard this, and realized there's a collective "En. Oh!" being shouted at the moment. As defined by Dr. Stuart Brown of the National Institute for Play, "Play is something done for its own sake. It's voluntary, it's pleasurable, it offers a sense of engagement, it takes you out of time. And the act itself is more important than the outcome." Yet, it seems that as a society we've overscheduled, goal-oriented and enrichment-activity-planned ourselves and our children into a corner -- a corner decorated with color-coded wall calendars, sticker charts and payment installment reminders.

Now, Moses and I already are big on leaving our kids' unstructured time that way. My stepson has always been inclined toward team sports, but similarly resisted additional planned activities. We let him quit violin lessons and chess club (though he still plays the latter on occasion), to allow more unscheduled breathing room (a.k.a. time to play Nerf guns, paintball and xBox). Most days after school, Stellina free-ranges around the house or outside, watching an episode of something via the PBS Kids app, making art, jumping on the trampoline or giving the cats relationship advice. Occasionally, her teenage pal Addie comes over for a ukulele "lesson," which means three minutes of fingers on strings and 87 minutes of playing with her Calico Critters. For most of the summer she's been at Audubon camp all day (since her dad and I both work full-time-plus). Her time is pretty activity-packed there, but the activities are of the play-based, exploratory, running through the woods, feeding injured birds of prey variety. She comes home calm and filthy and bug-bitten, with cicada shells and dried owl poop in her pockets.

But how do we, as grown-ups, rate on the play-readiness scale? Moses is far more skillful at it than I, both at playing with his kids and at engaging, per Dr. Brown's definition, in things he enjoys that take one "out of time." In contrast, I usually just feel out of time -- as in, that there isn't time to play. I prided myself preparenting on being that childcare provider or full-grown friend who joined kids on the swing set and kept a stash of dress-up costumes on hand. Now that I have ultimate responsibility for the survival of, and share surnames with, legal minors, however, I take things far more seriously than is probably healthy or useful. Even when wearing my best R&R face, my Virgo inclinations to fret and keep shit in order are ever-perseverating just under the fun-times, tattooed surface.

 I've realized I respond to "Mom, will you play with me?" not always, but too often, for me, with some version of "No." Usually I phrase it as yes-like as possible: "I'd love to, but I have to finish this [fill in the blank work-freelance-task at the computer]." Which is a total dodge, because after that's done, then it's homework-shopping-cleaning-chores-dinner-bath-reading-bedtime, and playing just ain't happening.

So, I've decided to play, just play, every day for the next three months. I started out calling it "100 days of play," a la the "100 happy days" trend making social-media rounds, but I like the ring better of 90 days, since it's that magical-yet-proven recommended time frame for forming new, good habits (such as exercising daily or not being a drunk). Plus it's shorter. Though, of course, the point is to play every day (one day at a time) for all the rest of my days.

 So far, that's involved hula-hooping; playing Twister (past bedtime!); doing somersaults and handstands in the neighbor's pool (despite feeling pretty certain that I'll die whenever in water deeper than the bathtub); and asking Moses to reteach me to play cards, resulting in many, many hands of Gin -- and an evening that felt like a lovely, impromptu, at-home date, during a summer when we've been working and parenting largely in shifts. Another pearl from Dr. Brown, from this NPR story a couple days ago: "The couples who sustain a sense of mutual playfulness with each other tend to work out the wrinkles in their relationships much better than those who are really serious." (Especially important: Yelling "Gin, MOTHERFUCKER!" and then realizing it wasn't, actually, and having a partner who mostly thinks you're cute when you act a fool, and being able to laugh with him, at yourself, in a way that feels like it heals some less charming, dictatorial know-it-all moments from the past.)

As it turns out, predictably, playing takes work! Or effort, rather. It's an effort for me to play versus to play-teach-correct-coach. That's uncomfortable to see in myself, and to say. Teaching-demonstrating a new activity is part of play sometimes, but I default so fast to a hands-on-hips stance (whether literally or in tone) that it admonishes the fun out of anything.

Last night I came home from work to childcare pal extraordinaire "Uncle" Diane hanging with the kid, clothes strewn about, Play-Doh and snippets of Barbie hair on the floor (some was pinned into Diane's hair, I think), Princess Mononoke on the TV. I admit that my first, internal reaction was not, "Look at the fun! Look at the creativity!" but rather, "Where's the vacuum? And why isn't she in her PJs yet?" But I persevered, faking my way into a dance party. We sang "Lucky Star." Diane had an impressive Cha Cha Slide debut. Stellina was on the dining room table at one point, wearing tap shoes and a vintage men's straw hat, legs still covered with mud from a ponding expedition at camp. While boogying down I calculated the time until lights out, if allowing for a quick bath and two chapters of our current read-aloud book (Betsy-Tacy). 55 minutes. I am getting better at pretending to play, anyway! Not bad for Day 5.

Header Image from Bangbouh @ Flickr