I played in the snow with my six year old son today. These are his post-play “glittens” – a cross between mittens and gloves, given to him from our dear friend Rosemary. They must have weighed five pounds each after our adventures in the snow. As they sat dripping on our radiator cover, we smiled at them over our hot chocolate – knowing we shared an understanding and a mutual appreciation for the “work” it took to get those mittens to that state.

As January nears its end, I am sitting with notion of “play” and its role in my life – and its role in all of our lives. Does it have a role? Have we found play a place? I had not, it seemed – despite the ease with which I laugh and my general love-of-life nature. Most recently, I have come to the disconcerting conclusion that I relegated my intentions to play to the shady and overstuffed box labeled “when I have time”. Fortunately, I have children. And as anyone who has children knows, they tend to have a way of keeping you honest and discouraging you from taking yourself too seriously.

As is my custom, I began the new year with my annual tarot card reading – one card for every month – with the amazing, Karen Wyman (anyone who attended last October’s Homecoming Retreat will remember Karen’s talent…). The card I pulled for January was Play. Coincidentally, it was the same card I had pulled at the retreat with Karen. At that time, I had earnestly asked Karen, “what does that mean….exactly?”. She smiled, rolled her eyes and replied, “Ah Lael…it means to play”. “Oh”, I said…still not sure. Then it showed up again for January. It seems to be following me – dogging me like a homesick puppy eager for a belly scratch. But, as with each of my monthly cards, I dutifully carried that notion around with me for the month of January to see what it held for me. I found it today. Indeed, in reflecting on January thus far, it found me – but good.

The snow – and having children – has helped tremendously. What adult doesn’t love the notion of a “snow day“, where everything cancels and we’re given complete permission to play, loll and stay in our pajamas all day? In this month, I’ve gone sledding, snowshoeing, and snowmobiling. I’ve baked, read voraciously and knit hats and socks and scarves. Last night, I even went on a date (with the above mentioned six year old) to the Nathan Clifford elementary school talent show – a unforgettable treat that left me misty-eyed and inspired by the courage and conviction of youth. Today, we made sophisticated sled tracks in the snow pile at the end of our street – taking care to name each one, articulate the merits of each and devise sophisticated engineering solutions to improve performance.

Kids get it. Adults were kids once, but like all the classic movie plots (The Polar Express, Mr. Magorium’s Emporium…) remind us, we eventually forget the art of play. Because we are good at achieving and reaching and get sucked all too soon into the hurry/do/go of our culture, we forget to see the magic in moments. And in doing so, we forget to see that the magic outside us also lives within us. I know I did.

In this age that is marked by countless “dis-eases” and ailments, there seems to be a return to the basic premise – the basic goodness and restorative nature – of play. Carl Honore writes about the critical importance of “challenging the cult of speed” in his phenomenal book entitled In Praise of Slowness. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, another favorite of mine, called this “finding flow” – the need to slow down enough to notice and engage with life in more meaningful and fulfilling ways. Abby Seixas invites us all to regularly access the “deep river within” as a means to restore, ground and recalibrate ourselves according to what is most important to us.

Take a quick trip to your local book store or do a search on the internet and you will find the topic is reaching even into the inner sanctums of board rooms and austere corporate offices. Granted, it might not be called “play” – executives and marketers opt for the more sophisticated concept of “improvisation” or “creative retreats”… but they’re really playing. And here’s the cool part: they’re finding this practice positively impacts their bottom line. A consulting colleague of mine, owner of BossaNova Consulting, specializes in bringing improv comedy into the consulting world. People love it. I know of organizations who have paused during their mid-winter strategic sessions to have snowmen building contests. At a board retreat I facilitated for a women’s organization last summer, we carved out a two hour chunk of time for play and invited women to take advantage of the beautiful venue at this lakefront home. You could hear the laughter and splashes as they had cannonball contests.

What if more organizations took this approach. What kind of a world would we live in then? Peter Senge and his colleagues in the book Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future assert that the spaciousness and surrendering nature of play allow for “letting go and letting come”; by putting down the reins of control, we open ourselves (and the world) up to what is “seeking to emerge”. Imagine the power – and ease! – in that.

Here’s what I’ve come to appreciate about adults and play:
  • We all remember how to do it…we might just need a little reminding
  • It’s paradoxical: it makes time seem to stop and yet it makes time go by fast
  • It’s highly productive, satisfying, fulfilling and entirely healthy
  • There is an incredible return on the investment of play

So why is play so far out of our consciousness as adults? Why do we tend to resist it? Scoff at it? Because we are a hardy lot, raised on the western ideals of working hard, being industrious and ultimately, “fighting” for what we believe in. Hmm. We’re good at rising to the occasion, rallying and “picking ourselves up and dusting ourselves off”, as Obama called out to us all in his recent Inauguration speech. Granted, I am a huge fan of our new leader and I responded accordingly. Because I’m good at that. Responding. Acting. Doing something. Getting busy. But aren’t we all? Ask me to rise up and I immediately take the bait with a resounding “yes”. But invite me to play for while and I hesitate or, worse yet, panic.

It seems I am not alone. We are a nation fundamentally out of balance. Perhaps it’s time to revisit that age-old notion of “work hard, play hard”. We’re got the “working” part down pat. Now it’s time to play!