Puzzling Out Play

Puzzling Out Play

pc Andrea Ruizquez

“Play is the gateway to vitality,” says The National Institute for Play. When is the last time you took the time to just play?

My only memory from kindergarten is playing musical chairs during a class party. Two rows of chairs had been placed back-to-back down the middle of the classroom. Dozens of parents stood against the walls, encircling the chairs. I had never seen the game before and was unsure what the teacher meant when she said, “Remember the rules! You can only sit down when the music stops, not before.”

Soon, I was naïvely walking around the assembled chairs with my classmates to a happy tune. Suddenly, the music stopped. Gasps and giggles ensued as everyone dashed to sit down. From the safety of the chair I’d been lucky enough to find, I watched a bewildered boy get led away to stand on the sidelines. One chair was removed, the music recommenced, and soon another child, not as quick as the others, shared that first boy’s sad fate.

Although I survived many rounds, what I remember most about that day was the fear. Listening closely to the music—all my senses alert, like an animal in the wild listening for predators—I migrated around those chairs with anxious intensity, my body tense and ready to pounce. I was more afraid to lose than I was eager to win.

When I was even younger, not quite two, I displayed a gift for swiftly assembling wooden puzzles. There are home movies of me so young I could barely speak, my chubby little hands flying as I connected the odd-shaped pieces. I worked as fast as I could, cheered on by laughs and claps—an early training to perform for praise rather than pleasure.

As if accomplishment was my North Star, I lived my whole life in the fast lane. I went to college at 16, and at just 20 cofounded a business with my husband that grew at lightning speed. I picked up my pace even more when we had children—a mother who worked full-time but would never miss a school event and felt compelled to serve home-cooked organic meals.

The playtime I spent with my kids was usually project-oriented. I liked our efforts to be productive. We would bake pretzels, string beads, build miniature houses out of popsicle sticks. I never understood how my husband could simply sit around tossing balls with our son and daughter for hours, playing what they called “hall games.” I used that time to make a dent in my long to-do list. The idea of resting or relaxing never crossed my mind. Although my body began to scream “NO” in the form of headaches, backaches, stomachaches, and more, I never slowed down—and society never stopped applauding my efforts.

Now I am 57, living through a pandemic. As the ground under my feet constantly shifts—and as life as a human animal living on planet Earth feels increasingly more tenuous—I’m looking back at a lifetime that has been overly focused on achievement and not sufficiently focused on delight. I know the time has come to shift my priorities.

Because of COVID, my daughter and her family took refuge with my husband and me for two months this summer. For the first time, I had my two grandchildren nearby for an extended period of time. They did a great job teaching me the art of play.

It took me a while to get my bearings as we made pasta out of playdough, choreographed silly dances, and ran through the sprinklers. But soon the freedom and lightness of pure play made me eager for more.

At first, not trying to get anything done—just letting myself have fun— was like visiting a foreign land with completely unfamiliar customs. It took me a while to get my bearings as we made pasta out of playdough, choreographed silly dances, and ran through the sprinklers. But soon the freedom and lightness of pure play made me eager for more.

Now that my grandkids have returned home, I’m determined not to backslide into my habitual patterns of all work and no play. To keep myself on track, I’ve self-prescribed puzzle therapy sessions. I intentionally assemble puzzles slowly, resisting the familiar lure of adrenaline that comes with a race. I’ve ordered a dozen 56-piece puzzles, custom-made with my favorite photos of pets and people. I smile as their faces are formed. When I finish each puzzle, I gaze at it in appreciation and then break it apart and put it back into the box. Nothing was accomplished except some fun and not-in-front-of-a-screen relaxation.

To help break my workaholic patterns, I’m not allowing myself to work for more than 30 minutes after dinner. When that half hour is over, I step away from the computer and ask myself, “What do I want to do right now? What would make me the happiest and most relaxed?” Sometimes it’s a long stretch to music, sometimes a bath, a book, or an extra-long cuddle session with my dogs.

Happily, this new mindset is carrying over into other parts of my day, showing me that it’s okay to put treats before tasks—to turn down the pressuring and turn up the pampering. Sometimes I literally stop in the middle of a walk to smell the jasmine or to simply lay down on the cool grass and watch clouds traverse the sky.

The National Institute for Play calls the art of lighthearted recreation “the gateway to vitality.” The long list of benefits includes generating optimism, fostering humor, gaining a wider repertoire of resilience to deal with inevitable stresses, increasing the enjoyment of novelty, sparking the imagination, boosting the immune system, fostering empathy, and promoting a sense of belonging and community—which should be enough to convince even the most goal-oriented among us to put down our laptops and rediscover ways to frolic.

Thankfully, this pandemic has helped me remember that life doesn’t need to be a frantic, fearful rush to find an empty chair before they are all gone. Today, winning for me is more about learning how to relish my limited time as a human being living on planet Earth—to spread love and laughter, to play and rejoice.

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