For the past few days, I have been watching five squirrels in my neighborhood. They run from yard to yard and tree to tree. They chatter loudly at each other as if they don’t care who hears them. Sometimes they are racing around in trees, other times they are leaping and running on the ground. Their main focus appears to be each other. When one moves into a new yard the rest follow. When one teases a dog, the rest run right past the dog up in the same tree so they can tease the dog too. If I was going to describe what these squirrels are up to, I would say play. Lots of play.
That squirrels play isn’t news to you, I’m sure. If you haven’t seen squirrels play, you probably have seen puppies or kittens or dogs play. Lots of animals play. Young animals especially spend time in play. The people who study these things believe that lots of learning happens during play. For example, young canids (dogs and their relatives) learn the social rules for their species and pack during play. They learn what is acceptable behavior and what isn’t. Here and here are links to two short, introductory pieces about animal play.
Of course humans play too. Just like animals, children are learning the social rules during play. They are figuring out how we humans interact and get along. They are learning who they are as individuals and how they fit into a larger group. Children are learning lots of things about how the world works when they play.
Play it would appear is necessary. Particularly for social animals.
Play is also fun. Learning and fun are not mutually exclusive. But somewhere along the way, as we grow up, we begin toequate fun with frivolous. While adults play, the way we play changes. We become more goal oriented and competitive. We begin keeping score. We become concerned with the appropriateness of our play. “Child’s play” is not for grownups.
‘Fess up now, how many of you really like to crash “Hot Wheels” cars and having kids gave you the excuse you need? Or play with dolls? Or play hide and seek?
Somehow may of us picked up the message that play needs some larger, more serious goal. So we play with our kids because we know it helps our kids learn important things. Or we play golf for the social networking.
If you watch kids or animals play you’ll notice that it is spontaneous. And (when things work out right) there is a kind of happiness and satisfaction and joy that accompanies good play. When they play kids and animals explore the world with wonder and enthusiasm.
I wonder if we adults should expand our definition of play? What if play is a way to be part of the world, to engage the world with joy and wonder and enthusiasm? Would that change how we understand our lives? Would that change how we understand God and God’s calling in our lives?
Christian mystics, among others, encourage us to live with awareness and appreciation of God’s presence around us. They invite us to live fully engaged in the present, to live with happiness and satisfaction and joy. Are we being invited to play?
I’d like to know, what do you think? And how did you play this weekend?
Living with an expanded definition of play does not mean ignoring the real problems in the world.
The H1N1 flu is back in the headlines as WHO declares the outbreak a pandemic. While this may not directly impact your personal life, remember those of us in well off developed nations need to advocate for the health care needs of persons in poor nations. This Reuter’s article points out some of the concerns.