I was walking through Oaxaca City, Mexico’s Zocolo last Friday evening. There were so many families playing in the courtyard next to the church with the street vendors selling their elotes or corn on a stick, the smells of food wafting through the air. On the other side of the park, street musicians also added to the playful atmosphere. But the giggles were what really caught my attention.
There were moms and dads playing with their little ones with long giant balloons. A parent would hit the balloon up into the air and the child would cackle with delight as the parent tried to catch it, sometimes with the child in arms. Older kids would chase the balloons and everyone would laugh together no matter what happened with the balloon. I found myself giggling, too, their fun and laughter was contagious. The street dogs sometimes ran through, also playing with one another, causing another round of laughter as the dogs ran close to the balloons. It struck me how playful the families were here in the park, in the outside on a Friday evening, and how I don’t see so much of that outward playfulness in the US, especially not in public.
Playfulness and fun is an essential part of life. Our brains are not only really good at learning and processing a lot of information, they’re also good at play. That’s part of our mammalian brains. I’m sure that you’ve seen puppies playing with one another and mother dogs playing with their puppies. Play is a way that we learn and connect with one another. But many of us are really serious and we don’t know how to play. Some of us weren’t really played with as children and some of us didn’t play as children for various reasons. But this way of connecting that’s not about tasks or to do lists is foreign for a lot of us.
Jonathon couldn’t wait until his dad got home from work. He was so excited because they were going to play together. There had been a lot of stress in the family lately. Jonathon’s mom and dad were working on healing their relationship and Jonathon had been having a very hard time all around. His emotions were all over the place and he was having a lot of emotional upsets, which made him not very much fun to be around. The fun had stopped with all the serious adult things going on and trying to figure out what Jonathon needed. While it wasn’t the only ingredient in healing, it turns out that one of the things that he needed was fun and play and connection with his parents.
When things aren’t going well in a relationship, the last thing we think of is fun. We think of healing as serious work where we’re required to do painful things or really hard things. And sometimes that’s part of healing, yes.
But it turns out that finding ways to play, to bring fun into the relationship, to find new ways to connect especially when there is a challenge, is an often missed ingredient in healing.
When we feel disconnected, we pull back. When we pull back, the other person feels that, whether we say any words or not. Play provides a way for children (and adults) to decompress from stressful things and to find empowerment in situations where there is stress and disempowerment, like for Jonathon’s family with the relationship distress of his parents. It allows connection without words and engages the emotional brain, which is where we connect deeply with one another.
But let’s talk about what fun means. Fun is defined as enjoyment, amusement, or lighthearted pleasure. Fun means it is fun for everyone. If it is fun for one member of the family to go to a football game and the rest of the family can’t stand watching grown men run around in tights with people screaming at them, that isn’t family fun. But if the whole family is amused and enjoys going to football games, that’s fun.
But I also want to expand on this idea and talk about unstructured playtime.
Play’s most important elements are freedom and self-direction. When someone tells you to play and tells you a bunch of rules, it ceases to be fun. What’s enjoyable becomes the most important question. Play creates the space to practice skills important to healing like flexibility, problem solving, empathy, and more. Unstructured playtime is creating a container, a space for play to happen. Larry Cohen’s book, Playful Parenting, has some great suggestions for creating that safe container for play to happen. We need enough structure to keep everyone safe and enough freedom and space for self-direction to make it fun. How do you know if you’re playing? Laughter is one of the biggest clues. What makes you laugh? Do more of that. It’s a sure sign that play is happening.
One last thought about fun. Fun doesn’t have to be with anyone else. Fun can be choosing something that you enjoy and doing it by yourself. Fun can be painting, playing an instrument, going for a walk in nature or watching a funny movie or show, with or without someone else. Sometimes what is amusing or enjoyable and healing to you is something that you do alone, and sometimes that is what we need to heal.
How do you bring fun and play into your family? I’d love to hear your thoughts. If your family is healing, what do you do to bring in fun? What would you like to try this next week? Send me pictures and share your fun!
Johns Hopkins Magazine
Lighten Up- According to Science, It’s Good for You.
Published Summer 2016