The Playground

image for blog entry

You are sitting on a bench at your local playground. It’s sunny (despite Michigan’s temperamental weather). Your gaze begins to wander and settles on children climbing. They are climbing everywhere. It’s amazing, actually, how many things children can climb on. You further notice how they run, walk, slide down slides, play tag, squeal with delight on swings. Toddlers trundle off in a big, new-to-them world. They seem to take up space with ease; it’s their world, we’re just living in it. They are so sure that they belong wherever they go. Do you have this scene? For me, this imagined space invites lots of emotions: joy, wonder, delight, curiosity, and sadness. Yes, sadness. Because I, as an adult, have a harder time feeling so present and excited and happy and confident of belonging. I have more awareness and more to my story as to why these emotions make sense for me.

What is play, and why does it make sense for all humans of all ages? Play is defined by a singular concept: enjoyment. Is a human able to engage with and enjoy an activity or experience? Enjoyment can feel difficult to define. For me, enjoyment shows up as feeling open and free, energized, curious, and filled with wonder. I feel present, my imagination is captured. Maybe I forget to look at the clock because I am so attuned to my current experience. Take a look again at that word: enjoyment. What sensations, images, feelings, thoughts, or behaviors show up for you?

Studies show that play is essential for children’s development. If children show delays or difficulty engaging in play (enjoyment), this can indicate a deeper need for change in their level of support, environment, or skill building. Whichever the reason, there is pause to look deeper to ensure the child’s needs are met. If an adult struggles with play (enjoyment), this is also a sign to pause and consider unmet needs, past traumas, feeling stuck, unhealthy relationships, or a stressful work-life balance.

So, one could say play makes sense because it is a sign of health; a reflection of our internal okay-ness. But, let’s get nerdy for a moment to explore exactly why play is a sign of health. Play connects parts of our mind and increases resilience in the body. For the mind, neuroplasticity (flexibility of neural pathways) becomes more rigid as we age. Play encourages creations of new pathways and increases the ability for connection between our right and left brain. We have a clearer sense of ourselves, others, the world around us. We can access problem solving, memory, emotions, and cognitive functioning. These parts of our mind increase individual functioning and increase connection with each other. For the body, play encourages swift shifts from the sympathetic (flight and fight) and parasympathetic (freeze and fawn) nervous system. It helps our body to lean into these spaces to get familiar with how to be aroused with excitement rather than fear and stillness with calm rather than dissociation. Bodies store these swift shifts away to access for both future play and perceived threat; bodies learn how to move through joy and pain in a more resilient way.

In short, play makes sense because it is enjoyable and it is helpful for both our mind and body. This is all fine and fun, but play can be difficult to access for many humans. I, myself, know from personal experience it can be difficult and scary to learn the difference between calm stillness and dissociated stillness. My body can feel confused because it’s remembered all the dissociated stillness from past stories. This means your body needs time, repeated experiences, and safe supports to help learn safety within this space. Your mind and body may need to unlearn and remember. Play cannot happen without enjoyment, enjoyment cannot happen without feeling safe. Notice what this brings up for you, welcome any mixed emotions of happiness, hope, or grief. Below are some practical questions to help spark curiosity around helping us remember how to play:

- What was your favorite toy as a child? What memories come to mind?

- Watch your favorite childhood movie. Notice what feelings/sensations show up for you.

- Watch a child at play. Observe what happens for you internally.

- Journal or chat with a trusted other about what play looks like for you. How do you know you are in a state of play? What sensations, images, feelings, thoughts, or behaviors showed up?

~Hannah Davidhizar, LLC

1 Comment

Betsy Davidhizar
This is wonderful!
Thank you for writing this.
April 3, 2024