Learning to Embrace Play


We have all read that children learn best through play.  Articles are constantly telling us that young kids retain information better with play-based curriculums and that older kids are healthier with less structured activities and technology and more free play time.  Play fosters independence, problem solving, and creativity.  It boosts motor skills and vitamin D levels.  All of the science and research is screaming:  LET THE KIDS PLAY!

But y’all, play in my house is loud… and so messy… and feels completely counterproductive in my “to-do list” world. 

Play does not come naturally to me.

To make matters worse, I’ve recently read a couple of self-help books (I’m a total self-help book junkie.  Nothing gets me more excited than a self improvement measure), and I’ll be darned if they’re not also recommending play for grown ups these days.

In fact, I read the following quote recently, and it inspired me to take a good long look at how we integrate play in our family:

“The opposite of play is not work– the opposite of play is depression.”

–Dr. Stuart Brown

Depression is what comes next when I allow frustration and exhaustion to make a home in my heart.  These things have a way of finding their way in when I lose track of what really matters to me and to our family.  I never considered, until I read the above quote, that a lack of play could be helping plant those seeds.

In my nine years of motherhood thus far, I have had to get some things wrong before I could learn what was right for us.  In the most recent years, this lesson has come in the form of overscheduling.  Last spring, I was expecting our fourth child, and I signed the two oldest boys up for baseball because, hey, it’s America’s pastime! Little boys are supposed to play baseball.

Well, it was hard on us.  We were at the baseball fields every single night, WAY past our bedtimes, and, while there was a moment of fun here or there, we weren’t jumping for joy over the sport.  Even worse – I had the baby before the season was over and so I ended up bringing a 6-day-old baby TO THE BASEBALL FIELDS. 

Thankfully we learned our lesson… Just kidding! 

Soccer season rolled around this fall, and we signed up three boys for soccer because once again, little boys are supposed to play soccer.  The first son quietly went to soccer without complaint, but mostly chewed on his fingers while staring off in space and hoping the ball never came his way.  The second son loved it and was all in.  The third son screamed and cried and begged us not to go to Every. Single. Practice. And. Game.  And his dad was his coach. We ended up at the soccer fields every day except Sundays.

This winter, I resolved to not fall victim to my own inability to assess the situation again.  My husband and I had so many heart-to-hearts about why we felt like they really needed to do all these activities and why it wasn’t fun when they did.  We asked ourselves, “when do things feel the most joyful and meaningful in our family?” The answer for us?  

When we eat a family dinner around the kitchen table.  When we have time to make pancakes and bacon on a weekend day and run around in the backyard.  When the boys can spend half the afternoon planning out “shows” for us.  When we can all pile up on the couch on a Friday night and watch a movie together as a family.  When we can travel together.

The theme here: free time spent together as a family.

We thrive and feel the most connected when we can spend time with one another.

Now, we can’t do this all of the time.  We must work, go to school, do the laundry, and do some extracurriculars as well.  We can’t become hermits, but we can be intentional about how we choose to spend our time.

So, in our quest to do that, here are some things I’m learning about embracing play:

  1. If the answer is not “hell yes!”, then it’s “hell no!” This is one of my favorite quotes from a dear friend.  There are infinite options available to keep us busy, very few of which are necessary. When I asked the boys about playing soccer, if I had just listened to their responses, I would have had my answer.  The second born, who loves it, gave me the “hell yes!”  The others would have been happy just going to his games and our time away from home would have been cut by two-thirds.
  2. It’s ok if right now is simply not the right time to do something, even something good. Family life has its seasons, and they are each important and beautiful in their own right.  Occasionally I get asked to do something that is a worthy and important thing and I want so much to have the time and energy to say yes, but I know in my heart of hearts that I just can’t devote any more of my time elsewhere. I’m slowly learning to embrace the season I am in rather than try to push myself beyond my limits to do more…and more…and more.  
  3. It’s ok to break the cultural norms. Plenty of research shows that we are an out-of-sync culture.  We are depressed and anxious and unhealthy and tired.  We are told to lean in, push harder, and do more.  I am learning to say no to those ideas.  I’m learning that there is time to eat nourishing meals, exercise some, and sleep (as much as my fourth born will allow) because without those things I’m not that nice.  Recently, I’ve even learned there is time to read a good book or see a good movie or go sit on a blanket in the grass and watch my kids play or write in a journal or paint.  I’m learning to do those things because I’m learning to say no to a lot of the other things that kept me running. 
  4. I need to be intentional with my time. I’ve been evaluating my days and what kinds of things fill up my schedule and/or command my intention.  The first thing that I realized, which I didn’t want to admit, is that I am a chronic social media scroller when I have what I perceive as a “down moment.”  I sit down to nurse the baby and mindlessly scroll and next thing I know an hour has passed and I’m disillusioned with the state of the world.  I’m realizing that this is not restful.  I’m not renewed in these quiet moments. In the last month or two, I have nursed my way through three novels and an excellent non-fiction book, and I have felt so challenged and engaged and entertained.  I’m telling y’all… books are good.  I’ve rewritten this paragraph fifteen times to try to sound like I have some wisdom in this area, but I don’t. I am learning more and more about how to make my time count every day.  I am learning that with four children and school, sports, etc., I HAVE to structure in some down time for them.  It almost never happens organically.  As a stay-at-home mom, I’m learning it looks like spending more time at home.  I love a reason to be on the go, and I love the freedom to be able to do that, but I’m also learning that when I am gone every day, the house and my to-do list go up in flames and I am reactive, frustrated, and behind before I even begin.  For me, spending more days at home has allowed me to find more time for play for my kids and for myself.
  5. I’m learning to give in to the mess. I’m having to remind myself that if I am truly embracing the “let them play” mentality, then I have to be ready for the chaos that ensues.  In my house, you cannot even begin to imagine what that means.  Picture an entire room of costumes that get changed 56 times a day, markers that are used not only on paper but on their faces to have just the right wounds or scars, science experiments in the windowsill, art work in piles in every room of the house, and every genre of toys lined up everywhere.  There are battle cries and sibling squabbles and theme songs galore.  There are snacks that they made themselves, leaving peanut butter or popsicle juice or any number of other unexplainable sticky spots all over my kitchen. It’s enough to send this Type-A mother into a frenzy.  It’s hard for me to deal with some days, BUT if I am going to stand behind the idea that play is essential to their well-being, then I can do the hard work of letting their imaginations run free.  They are never bored, and consequently, neither am I.  We are all getting better at cleaning up together.

Some of you won’t relate to this post.  You will read it and you will think that you thrive in the crazy and your kids LOVE the activities they are doing, and I am genuinely so happy for you and will be rooting for you every step of the way.

This post is for those of you who are dividing and conquering with your spouse for the third time this week and feel utterly exhausted and long for a change.  Those of you who are hurrying through homework because you only have 25 minutes to get changed and packed up for the next activity.  Those of you who can’t remember the last time you ate a meal as a family. Perhaps it’s time you ask yourself…

When is the last time I played?