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Never Stop Playing

Burst of creativity

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Creativity and play go hand in hand. Cultivating both of these natural instincts later in life is key to wellbeing.

“Creativity” may not be the first idea that comes to mind when thinking about people who are growing old. We tend to equate aging with so-called senior moments, physical limitations, and declining health. But as a senior myself, I choose to believe what Maya Angelou said: “You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.”

Angelou’s life reflects this belief. Her creative accomplishments are amazing—over 25 published books, including memoirs, poetry, essays, plays, and children’s stories. Angelou was 85 when she published her seventh volume of autobiography in 2013 and was working on another book when she died the next year.

It’s clear from Angelou’s story that creativity doesn’t have to become stagnant or diminish with age. What creativity needs, however, is more than a magical force that just comes to you and inspires you to write, paint, make music, and so forth. Creativity needs to be exercised or nurtured; it needs to be used. I, therefore, look for ways to cultivate my creativity. I do this to keep my spirit alive. Afterall, I don’t want my spirit to die before my body is laid to rest!

[Read: “3 Ways to Reclaim Your Creative Mind.”]

I look to creativity to enrich my life on a daily basis. Research tells me that I’m not just wasting my time or engaging in wishful thinking. An article published in Forbes magazine several years ago explains how engaging in creative behaviors can improve brain function, mental health, and physical health. The article is based on a research report describing how creativity can boost our immune system, reduce dementia, and make us happier.

Creativity involves the use of the imagination to create something original or new. Maya Angelou’s creativity was evident in her writings and public speaking. Creativity can also be expressed in painting, sewing, gardening, cooking, singing, and many other forms of expression.

Creative endeavors often involve some form of play. In music, we use the term “playing an instrument.” With poetry, we play around with words. And in theatre we use the term “putting on a play.” Even the famous psychologist Carl Jung saw a link between creativity and play: “The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity.”

Jung used the term “play instinct,” which suggests that play is something we’re naturally inclined to do. Somewhere in his writings, Jung also refers to creativity as an instinct. Biologists believe that instincts are permanent traits, yet instincts can lay dormant if not utilized. While play is something we do for fun, it isn’t always frivolous. In her book Deep Play, Diane Ackerman explains how play is a fundamental part of a healthy life. She describes play as “a refuge from ordinary life, a sanctuary of the mind, where one is exempt from life’s customs, methods, and decrees.” Doesn’t Ackerman’s description of play sound a lot like creativity? Play and creativity actually have a lot in common, and both can produce amazing results. These results show up in our psyches as well as in physical forms of creative expression.

Creativity doesn’t have to be about fancy stuff. In fact, the idea of “fantasy” might be more closely related to creativity than “fancy.” Fantasy—which shows up in both creativity and play—allows us to step inside a world away from what is often described as our “everyday routine.” We all know that everyday routines can become a source of boredom—perhaps more so as we get older. In our senior years, we may no longer have the stimulation we once got from work and from raising children. Without sufficient stimulation, apathy and depression can chop away at our quality of life.

Creativity and play are stimulating. They help us shed the confines of ordinary life. Creativity and play are “time stoppers.” They allow us to be fully present in the moment. Days and hours can seem way too long if we have nothing special to do or to focus on. My ability to be creative and to play reminds me that getting older isn’t a time to shut down but to enter life more fully.

We, as humans, are a playful species. We have a creative, playful instinct. The ability to keep this instinct alive during our senior years is a blessing. We might differ in the artform we choose to express our creativity, but the ability to be playful and creative is something we have in common and something worth celebrating!

It’s now time for me to go outside and play.

Extend playtime! Check out this exercise in unplanned creative play.


About the Author

Ruth Wilson

Ruth Wilson, Ph.D., is a retired educator who now works with the Children and Nature Network as curator of the Research...

Click for more from this author.


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