I’ve been thinking a lot lately about play. I don’t play very much. I write, I do trivia games sometimes, I crossword, and I watch TV. But I don’t play. I’ve never played sports (I just work out), I’ve never played video games. I only recently started playing board and RP games. From the moment I learned how to read as a kid, it was my chosen form of entertainment. I’d spend hours and hours in the summer holed up in my room curled around a book, ignoring the outside world.
Oh sure sometimes I’d play with my beanie babies or make up stories with my friends, but I wasn’t very good at doing anything like that myself. I was already creating involved to do lists by the age of 12. I never simply explored.
There’s a lot of evidence that play is really good for human beings. It’s how we learn things, it’s one of the ways we become comfortable with our bodies and our environments, it makes us more creative and better at problem solving, and it often creates social connections that go a long way towards making us more comfortable with people more quickly.
Basically, play is great. It makes us happier, better connected, smarter, and better workers.
In concert with thinking about play, I’ve been reading a lot about introverts and highly sensitive people lately. I am a pretty classic introvert, and I am definitely what’s called a highly sensitive person. For those who aren’t familiar with that term, it refers to someone who reacts to physical, emotional, and social stimuli more strongly than others. That means on a physiological level, not simply in the behavior they have in response.
These characteristics tend to lead a person to want to control their environment. You’re more likely to seek out calm environments, dark spaces, less people, intellectual and internal stimuli rather than outside interests. And I pretty well fit those descriptions. When I did seek outside stimuli, I did so in very structured ways: I joined clubs and classes and activities because they made sense and had a clear structure and order to them that I could rely on.
Exploring things has always been scary to me. New foods, new sounds, new places are highly overwhelming because I just feel a lot. Unfortunately, that’s made play, especially individual, explorational play, really hard for me. I didn’t do a lot of playing in the dirt or wandering around on my own or poking at things when I was little, and I still prefer things to be in a clear order rather than just jumping in and messing around with something new. I can’t color or do arts because there’s no clear end point. I can’t just listen to music, I have to be doing something else with a point. I have a really hard time with these things.
So: I’m introverted and highly sensitive, which means I’m not much good at explorative play. I’ve managed to do ok when it comes to creativity and connection through some hard work with my therapist. But what’s still giving me serious trouble is my relationship with my body. I have serious difficulties seeing my body as part of myself, something necessary and innate, something that is me rather than just an annoying extra feature that I’d rather get rid of.
Theory: play helps us understand our own bodies. It helps us develop the senses that locate where the parts of our bodies are, it helps us understand the limitations and abilities of our bodies and respect what they can and can’t do for us. In many anecdotes about bold kids who play often and without fear, I hear that they grow up to be people who are pretty at home with their physical presence and not afraid of being hurt.
The more you play, the more you realize that a body is part of being human. It lets you learn and interact. Kids who don’t play, but instead read or work or practice an instrument, or whatever, don’t learn how to just exist with their body and be ok with it. They need something external to help them along. There are lots of people who don’t play enough anymore. Humans pretty naturally play throughout their whole lives, unlike many other animals. But we keep forgetting to do that, which may be leading to some disconnects from our bodies.
It seems highly likely to me that kids who are introverted or highly sensitive might need a little more effort on the part of their parents to give them space to play. They might need quieter spaces with less color and less stimulation. Maybe they need to play with one other person instead of lots, and be allowed to take the lead in their play. Maybe they need a yard that’s fenced in so they know what to expect. Maybe as adults, we introverts and sensitives need to make these kinds of spaces for ourselves.
Let’s try an experiment: I’m going to play more this week. I’m going to climb, I’m going to play in the rain, I’m going to roll around with my kitten and doodle and get messy in the kitchen. I’m going to buy a ball or some nerf swords and see what I can do with them. Play will be my task. One thing that I’ve found works incredibly well for me when it’s warm is to go somewhere I can climb or run or swim with a friend and a camera, and just go on a photo adventure. What works for you?