Of course, toddlers and kids play. That’s what they do, not just because they seek to entertain themselves, but because that is how they learn to be people. All kids play, but they don’t all play the same. And “playing” takes all forms. My little girl loves unpacking and repacking things. I don’t know where she gets that from, but it happens everywhere she can make it happen. She’ll unpack every toy from her toybox – perhaps putting them in a pile on the other side of the room, sometimes handing them to an attending adult, and once lining them all up on the windowsill – and then, once the toybox is empty, she will put every toy back in the toybox. Then she will repeat this process. Several times. The first time I witnessed this, I thought to myself, “How is that fun?” But playing isn’t just about entertainment or fun; it’s about discovering oneself and learning how to interact with the world.
The best play is spontaneous. Winnicott would say that this comes from the sudden freedom of being one’s real self. This doesn’t mean that play doesn’t still require holding and structure – again, think of the spontaneity of a pick-up basketball game. But in a moment of genuine curiosity, perhaps at odd times, I’ve learned to encourage my little girl. Here’s an example: At dinner time one night, she was strapped into her high chair while she and I waited on her mother to warm up some turkey in the microwave. I was standing in front of the chair, my hands on my hips, waiting. I glanced down to see that my little girl was watching me and had also put her hands on her hips. Recognizing her mimicry, I then put my hands on my cheeks, making an exaggerated Home Alone face. She studied me a moment, then put her hands on her own cheeks. It was my turn again, so this time I pointed my fingers at her in a Dogma Jesus pose. This presented a bit more of a challenge for her, but she managed to point at me with both of her hands, thumbs crooked outwardly. This game was so cute I shouted at her mother to come and watch, and we repeated the motions. But this was not the end of our game. Now, my little girl initiates the game, beginning each game by putting her hands on her cheeks. Now, I mimic her and let her lead. She will then point at me, and I will point back. And she’s even added some poses of her own – hands on top of her head, and clapping. Each time she plays this game with me, it is with concentration and seriousness. She’s not just doing to it to entertain herself; she’s learning how to interact and initiate and, slowly, develop a sense of independent ego.
And you know what? It’s doing the same thing for me. Who would have ever guessed I would have forgotten how to play? Of course, I haven’t ever forgotten the concept of entertaining myself, or having fun, or goofing off. I play my guitar, I play video games, I play board games with friends. But that spontaneous exploration of my surroundings out of curiosity and a genuine desire to discover something new about the world – well, maybe that happens occasionally with music, but it doesn’t with video games. That’s one of the wonderful things about being around a child. It’s sort of a tired cliché that children teach us to see the world through new eyes. But I have rediscovered the simple pleasures of playing. I don’t need elaborate, new activities to keep me entertained (well, not all the time, anyway). Helping my little girl turn her blocks so they all face the same way is a simple, Zen-like practice that seems to yield insights I hadn’t seen before: simplicity in patterns, and the agency to make them noticeable. I watch her pull books and CDs off shelves, knowing she does not have the capacity to read them (The Brothers Karamazov has come off several times) or enjoy their musical pleasures (Nirvana’s Nevermind is still a little raw for a seventeen-month-old). But she is curious to see their colors, to feel them in her hands, and then to find a new place for them, or – and this is even more exciting! – see if she can put them back exactly where they came from.
When is the last time I really examined the order of things around me? When is the last time I took pieces of my life off the shelf not for any particular goal-oriented purpose, but just to turn them over in my hands and feel them without caring if or how they got put back? That, my friends, is play. And I really want to do more of it.