The Play’s The Thing

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As I write this, I am in the Outer Banks of North Carolina for my kids’ spring break week. And at 11 and 9, they are the perfect ages to truly appreciate it – school has gotten a bit tougher, more strenuous, and they see this as a chance to recharge. And the way they recharge is not by sleeping in until noon (although sometimes I wish they would!) but by kicking around the soccer ball, competing against each other or as a team in Mario Kart and Just Dance on the Nintendo Switch, making stop-motion videos, crafting, swimming, reading fantasy stories, playing mini golf, the list goes on…

I look at them envious at times that they can so easily just switch gears from the drudgery (aka their schoolwork) into this playful mode without even consciously realizing it. As an adult, I feel like somehow there are those nagging anxieties that never quite leave, even when I am deliberately not thinking about them, and making the shift into a more relaxed and playful mode can feel incredibly difficult.

Learning to Walk

One thing I’ve learned over the years is to not force it. Taking several small steps can actually move you more quickly towards your goal than trying to take a big leap. Think about a small child learning to walk. Picture her gingerly testing out her legs, seeing if she can take one, then two, then three steps. Someday soon she will be running around the room uncatchably fast. But not yet. She needs to learn, quite literally, how to put one foot in front of the other. Just like that aspiring toddler, it does not do us any good to try to rush into a new mindset; in fact, it can do damage to our self-esteem, making us feel like we have failed. Rather, spending some time to consider the small steps you need to make the shift will yield tremendous results.

For me, the first step was not only detaching from the day-to-day but also feeling comfortable enoughto commit to it publicly. I knew I still needed to devote some time to my clients this week but I did not want that to be the entire break. So I decided that mornings from 8 am to 12 noon would be my work block and that 12 noon and onward would be “play time” with my family. As such, I set my out-of-office message this week to read, “Happy Spring! With my children off school for their Spring Break, I'll be balancing my time between work and family and, as such, my response may be delayed. Best times to reach me will be in the mornings before 12 noon ET; otherwise, I will be checking email periodically and will get back to you as soon as I am able.” To which I got this immediate response from a client: “That is the best out of office email I’ve ever witnessed. I can tell you are an entrepreneur, enjoy your work, and have a work-life balance.” This immediately validated that I made the right decision and that I needed to now hold myself to it.

A Happy Talent

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “It is a happy talent to know how to play.” I couldn’t agree more. The instinct to play is something we are born with yet fades with age. As adults, many of us need to make that conscious effort to develop this talent, not only to play but to make room for play.

Another quote I like to cite is from Fred Rogers, the guru on play and early childhood, who said, “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play IS serious learning.” When you think about it, play is serious learning not just for children, but for all of us. Our society tends to dismiss play for adults; play can be perceived as unproductive, petty, even a guilty pleasure. The notion is that once we reach adulthood, it’s time to get serious, to start “adulting,” as it were. And between our personal and professional responsibilities, it can feel like there is no time for play.

So the talent we must cultivate is that of integrating play INTO our personal and professional lives. In his 2010 book Play, author and psychiatrist Stuart Brown, MD, compares play to oxygen. He writes, “…it’s all around us, yet goes mostly unnoticed or unappreciated until it is missing.” This is how important it is to find a way to play – and play can take many forms. It can be sports, games, movies, music, daydreaming…whatever takes you out of your usual realm and shifts your brain out of overload mode. And we don’t need to play every second of the day to reap the benefits. Brown calls play a catalyst and a little bit of play can go a long way toward relaxing us and boosting our mood. 

Once again, it is not about taking the big leap; it’s finding what type of play works for YOU and cultivating it in a way that can be integrated more readily into your life. Here in the Outer Banks, the weather has been unseasonably cold, so our original plans for beach and pool time have been reconsidered. Instead, taking an hour of the day to simply walk on the beach (albeit wearing jeans and a sweatshirt!) with my kids and watch them run on the sand, jump the remnant waves at the shoreline as the tide comes in, and find interesting-looking shells has helped me to feel a bit more playful myself.

Granted, having access to a beach this week (despite the weather) helps. But I can also find ways to connect when we are home – maybe it’s kicking around the soccer ball with my son in the backyard, taking my daughter to see a musical (or watching Hamilton or Encanto on Disney-Plus with her for the umpteenth time), or even joining them for a round of Mario Kart or Just Dance (exhausting, but lots of laughs when Mom can’t keep up with the steps). Simply creating those memories with my kids is the important part – and watching them play and playing with them helps my mindset to allow more play into my own life.

What is the catalyst for you? How can you start to make the small shifts that allow you to better integrate play into your personal and professional life? I’d love to hear what you do and what you learn about yourself in the process.

Alison French is the Managing Director of Alto Solutions, LLC. Her work as a facilitator, trainer, coach, and consultant focuses on using kindness, connection, and brain science to bring people and ideas together for learning and success.

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