Our daughter’s room is a cozy café au lait color with white butterflies scaling one wall. A large window, flanked by pale pink curtains, gives a tree-house view into the backyard. Long strips of Scotch tape secure a burgeoning collection of original artwork to the door. Dolls, stuffed animals, My Little Ponies, books, and dress-up clothes fill every inch of hardwood floor as it peeks out from under the pink wool rug. There are no apologies for, or even mention of, the mess and clutter of previous play as my daughter and her friend jump straight into the world of make-believe:
“Pretend I have a broken leg. And pretend that up on your bed is the house. And pretend that we’re sisters. Pretend that I’m Tinkerbell, and I’m going to the Winter Woods.” And then an original song on fairies and woods is performed with great intensity and feeling. Dramatic dialogue ensues. Costumes are changed, tea parties arranged.
From my laundry-folding perch in the next room, I hear “pretend” on repeat. And I’m beginning to see the brilliance of a word that transports you into a different world, one in which the pretender can be free from the concerns of everyday life and be anything she wants to be.
If I decided to employ the vast imaginations of my children at play and pretended I didn’t have a to-do list, I could pretend the dirty dishes aren’t there, that the laundry doesn’t need to be folded.
I could sit down and really see and enjoy my children.
My son has been asking me to play a complicated game with him for three days now, and I keep saying, “Not yet. Maybe tonight. Maybe tomorrow.”
If I could stop and pretend my lists away, I could really listen to him and enter into life with him in a fresh way.
I could say, “Pretend I’m not in my house with piles of unfolded laundry, dirty dishes spilling over the sink and running onto the counters, lunches and snacks to prepare for the next day, still more stains to scrub out of school pants needing to be worn too soon. Pretend I’m in an alternate reality where all I have before me is time, time to play. Pretend the only thing on my to-do list is to learn this game and play it with all the passion my son pours into it.”
And then the screaming to-do’s would be silenced — they’re in another world, I can’t hear them here — and I, too, could play.
My children don’t have to pretend anything away. They naturally throw everything off, from responsibilities to socks, trusting that someone else will care for all the things left undone.
To-do’s are an afterthought — a thought that comes after play.
Instead of shouldering the weight of the things they must finish before bedtime, my children set them aside and enter fully into whatever game or imagining or fun is before them.
And if nothing is before them, they create play in their surroundings: at the top of the slide, my daughter is Rapunzel in her tower, my son creates a fort of sticks in the backyard to aid in a surprise attack against imminent invaders; inside, they jump from one pillow to the next because the carpet is hot lava. Their imaginations and their scope of play know no boundaries and encompass them fully.
I want to learn priorities and playfulness from my children, yet I rush from one place to another, with list after list driving me forward.
And I’m realizing that, even more than a lack of time or a load of responsibilities, the problem is: I have no idea how to play anymore. When I view play as what my children do — uninhibited activity jumped into so naturally, so fully, and so joyfully — nothing in my life looks or smells that way.
I can’t save play for a time when all my lists are finished because my lists will never all be finished. I can’t throw off all my responsibilities, because, in motherhood, there is no desk to leave, no means of clocking out of the day’s demands.
I then have to accept that play is a choice. It’s a choice that might not look the same for me as it does for my children, or for friends, but it is — it can be — a break from the demands of everyday life.
One morning, a friend of mine was taking her daughter to preschool, and said to the dawdling child, “Come on. We’re in a hurry.” And the child stopped and said, “Mommy, I’m not in a hurry — you are.”
What I love about this story is that it highlights a moment in which my friend became her child’s student, pausing with intention: she stopped, left her hurry, and took her child’s face in her hands. She told her she was sorry, and she loved her by seeing the world as her little one did in that moment, with no time constraints.
My friend made the choice to prioritize a person over the responsibility to teach her preschooler timeliness; she chose to prioritize a moment of play over the characteristic rush of modern life.
There is so much to learn from watching children as they go, unhurried and unfettered, about their days. Play doesn’t teach us to rush; play is the work of children — a slow-stepping into far-off places and dreaming.
My children naturally embody play, throwing off everything else and diving into life with full and complete abandon. When we have dance night, my kids don’t think about what they look like to someone else. They throw themselves into the song — experimenting, laughing, playing.
Meanwhile, I’m silently bemoaning the unfinished work I have to do, straining to be present and free, even in my awkward dancing, an attempt at letting go.
Over the last few years my friend, Kristen Odmark, has been studying, speaking about, and teaching classes to adults on the subject of play. She first describes play as an awareness of an inward space and then, second, as a clearing of that space, which creates room to breathe and play.
Adults have the mental space and capacity to play, but in order to access it, we must stop to acknowledge it and clear from it the distractions that hinder us.
Wide-open spaces smell of freedom and beg us to run or to stop and breathe in beauty. But the mind of an adult, unlike that of a child, gets trapped inside cubicles — be they cubicles of to-do lists, schedules, or responsibilities, those rigid compartments in our adult minds crowd out free space.
Yet, within us all, we can find an expanse where we can finally relearn how to play.
As an adult, I have responsibilities and schedules I can’t throw off the way my children do. But I can set them down momentarily. For me, play is becoming less about an activity and more about savoring life; slowing down and — yes — pretending for a moment that the demands have disappeared and that I can be present long enough to take in whatever that moment brings.
Some days, my play has to begin with just taking a breath – slowly clearing the stage of my mind and walking away from my to-do’s, letting go of responsibilities just for a bit, maybe letting tears I’ve been holding in roll all the way down my cheek and off my chin.
And maybe tomorrow I can breathe again, this time a little more deeply — and then take one more step into the wide-open freedom and joy that is play. I will take one step at a time, just as children learn to walk — step, fall, get up, step, step, fall, fall. If I keep getting up, eventually I’ll find myself in an all-out run.
Kimberly Girard is a wife, mother to two sons and a daughter, writer, and blogger in Nashville, Tennessee. When she’s not watching her children play, managing beautiful chaos, or honing the art of laundering and stain removal, you can find her at loudsinging.com and on Twitter.