Last month, as I was dutifully churning out a few miles on Calvin’s campus, I saw a boy—probably about ten years old running alongside his biking mother and towing a bounding dog. His stride was bouncy, and he wore a smile. I was suddenly reminded of running beside my mom when I was his age. She would guide me through a big-feeling 5k loop and watch exasperatedly as I balance-beamed along little walls and jumped up to pluck low-hanging leaves. I, too, was bouncy back then. However, I realized as I trudged past the happy cohort to complete my work-out, that I had incrementally traded this springiness for success, not only in running, but in most aspects of my life.
You see, in my new, post-collegiate reality, I’ve cleaved life into two competing halves: work and rest. Or, more personally: child-wrangling and Netflix. The two complement and necessitate one another; I spend long hours at school so that I can fund long vacations and spend Friday nights draining my laptop battery to catch up on TV so I can re-charge for Monday morning. It’s a self-promoting, chicken-and-egg system. What I realized while running last month, though, is that in my bustling adult life, I have nearly abandoned a third, essential component: play.
Back when I was a bouncy ten-year-old, I remember pecking out a phone number I still know by heart and chirping out “Can Danny play today?” I would then hop on my Razor scooter and whiz down the street to spend the day inventing games, traipsing through ravines, and engineering new ways to torment short-tempered sisters with my best childhood friend. I wouldn’t ask “Can Danny hang out?” or “Can Danny grab coffee?” or “Does Danny want to Netflix and chill?” because that’s not what we wanted to accomplish. We wanted to strap on our tennis shoes, grab a can to kick or flag to capture, and play.
Fortunately, play has been enjoying renewed attention in the fields of education and child development lately, giving rise to a concept called “play theory” and, ironically, dozens of very dry articles on the topic in the American Journal of Play. The theory suggests that engaging in play is a socially and cognitively vital part of human development and has spurred push-back against attempts to trim recess times and increase homework loads at the elementary school level. The Shelby Farms Park in Memphis, Tennessee that I visited a few summers ago takes play theory so seriously that it divides its enormous playground into six “nests,” each distilled from a different type of play. The summer camp I interviewed for this spring even lists play amongst its core values, alongside integrity, inclusion, and stewardship. The message is clear: adults are taking play seriously.
However, the reason that play can so easily be mistaken as extraneous is because it is characterized by frivolity. Play is not about academic journals or cognitive development; it is about vanquishing imaginary monsters on the playground, seeing opportunity in objectively awful tree houses and pillow forts, and spending hours painstakingly creating a battle scene between warring marshmallow armies on your friend’s porch while he’s on a family vacation.
This is not the Friday night bar-hopping implicit in “work hard, play hard” or the monetary play promised by casinos and lotteries or the sports cars and nocturnal flings that make someone a “player” (pronounced “play-uh”). This kind of play is not high-stakes or high-brow. Instead, true play is a space where there is nothing to lose or to gain, where every part of a person—mind, body, spirit—much be acting in free and complete communion. It is a space that requires creativity, demands activity, and necessitates silliness—a space requiring the industriousness of work with the safety of rest.
Now, if we’re lucky, play will eventually become work—stop-motion LEGO movie-making becomes hours editing film in post-production, devising coded scavenger hunts for your cousins becomes crafting intricate projects for your students, and occasionally jaunting around the block with your mother becomes logging long miles through snow and sleet for the chance to pound out 26.2 more—and that is a good thing. However, when that happens, I think that we must search out new pastures for play—Scottish dancing, Settlers of Catan, scuba-diving. When we begin to lose springiness in one area, we must seek it in another.
But beyond that, we must also seek it with each other. If I’ve learned anything over these first few years of adulthood, it’s that people don’t change too much; the same things that we loved as kids, we still love now, and I think that there’s always a part of us hoping for a friend to call and ask if we can play. Because play isn’t only something that brings us into communion with ourselves, but allows us to commune with others as well.
So, I think that we need to allow ourselves and each other to engage in play, eliminating the penalties for looking dumb and embracing the opportunities for silliness. We need to run alongside each other and not get so caught up counting miles that we forget to jump for some leaves.
Gabe Gunnink (’14) lives in Seattle, where he works for a European travel company and gawks at the landscapes and skylines surrounding him. In his free time, he enjoys practicing Portuguese under his breath on city buses, running far enough to justify eating an entire pan of cinnamon rolls, and faithfully implementing Oxford commas.