By Alicia Heyburn
Have we lost something in our culture? I bet you could think of several things that have shifted in our society since you were a child, but I’m thinking of play. Good, simple, screen-free, sand-castle building, hide-and-seek, sprinkler-running, somersaulting, fairy house making, play. Remember that? Well, its good for all of us, not just kids.
Play used to be seen as a rehearsal for adulthood and preparation for the future; but research is now showing that the benefits of play persist throughout life. Neuroscientists have shown that nothing lights up the brain like play. It helps our memory develop and stay active, and it may have a significant role in our survival and resilience. As Ken Finch, former director of the Green Hearts Institute for Nature in Childhood, wrote, “A child can practice and learn good judgment by climbing trees at age six or that can wait until they are sixteen and behind the wheel of a car.”
The Maine-based Forest Playgroup challenges children to take risks and learn from their failures. A toddler can fall in the mud, practice walking on slippery logs, or roll down a hill to strengthen their sense of self, while learning about consequences. Research has found that unstructured outdoor play (Parents: open the door and let those kids out!) allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination and physical, cognitive and emotional strength. At the same time, it builds social skills as children learn how to work in groups, share, negotiate, resolve conflicts, and self-advocate.
Explore backwards in your own life to your earliest memory of a joyful, playful moment. It can help you re-prioritize your life. Childhood memories of exploring tidepools, chasing crabs, building forts in the woods or setting out in a rowboat may be why you came to (or stayed in) Harpswell.
But be careful. If the purpose is more important than the act of doing it, then it is probably not play. Swimming to train for a triathlon is not play but doing a cannonball off the bowsprit is. Building a treehouse for the grandchildren is purposeful work; being on pirate watch is playful, especially if you need a secret password to gain entry. Story is a fundamental part of the play scene, and an active imagination that generates tales about pirates and lost treasure is well primed for inventing new technology, negotiating peaceful solutions, and creating inspiring art.
For a great children’s book about imaginary play, check out Roxaboxen by Barbara Cooney. After hearing his camp leader read this book to him this week, one of the lucky kids attending HHLT’s largely play-based Nature Day Camp said this while gazing out at the tide pools at Pott’s Point Preserve: “Do you think in 60 years when I have gray hair, I will remember this?” Read the book and you’ll understand why this is such a sweet statement.
The opposite of play is not work, it is depression, so play is also part of a strategy for a healthy life. It has a biological role, just like sleep and dreams, and is not just something to relegate to your spare time. The National Institute for Play states that, “Play is the gateway to vitality. By its nature it is uniquely and intrinsically rewarding. It generates optimism, seeks out novelty, makes perseverance fun, leads to mastery, gives the immune system a bounce, fosters empathy and promotes a sense of belonging and community.” Wow!
Humans are designed to play though our whole lifespan. So, what does your schedule hold that’s playful? Why not visit HHLT’s rotating Forest Playground? Have you made a fairy house in one of the two fairy house villages along the Cliff Trail? Check the tide tables, roll up your pants and splash through the surf at Stover’s Point Preserve. Or paddle out to Crow Island. Pitch a tent, but don’t get in it until you have seen a shooting star flash across the dark sky above Middle Bay. Then make a wish that tomorrow you can have another play date with nature.