It’s summer here in the northern climes—and summer means the swimming pool.
Last weekend, I stretched out on a deck chair at the local public pool and spent a few hours in the splash zone. Kids were squealing in delight. Ungainly games of Marco Polo were played with a group of 25 or more. Spontaneous rounds of “keep the beach ball up in the air” formed and faded. Toddlers, in their bright yellow and blue baby floats, grinned, splashed, and waggled their fat little legs.
Play. We all say we love it. But the truth is many of us don’t do it.
Work is getting in the way of our play time. As work hours increase and more people “check in” with work during their days off—or work multiple part-time jobs with no days off—exhaustion levels are up. Americans spend half our “leisure time” collapsed in front of the TV. And, unless we are savvy TV consumers, end up wearier than we started.
The new neuroscience indicates that play is a basic biological process in animals and humans. Along with sex, hunger, and “fight or flight,” play is hardwired in us to keep our neurons adaptable and growing. It’s also the foundation of “civilization”—art, creativity, innovation, literature, music, theater, and complex social relationships.
According to Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play, there are seven properties that identify play: It is done for its own sake, voluntary, has an inherent attraction, and involves freedom from time, diminished self-consciousness, improvisational potential, and the desire to keep doing it.
Brown has studied animal play behavior, developed “play histories” for humans, researched how lack of play may contribute to anti-social behavior, and most important, examined how play fuels brain growth and flexibilit across a lifetime.
In his book Play, Brown also notes that good sleep and true play are both essential in brain development, adaptability, and in contributing to a deep experience of joy.
American Christians are particularly bad at playing. The “Protestant work ethic” has left us with a slight religious distaste for fun, frivolousness, silly stuff, and jokes. We have bought the lie that the opposite of play is work. It’s not. The opposite of play is despondency. We have confused playing with Paul’s “childish ways” that, as mature Christians, we are to set aside (1 Corinthians 13:11).
But play is part of our essence created in us by God. On the seventh day, says Genesis 2:2, God “rested,” “blessed,” and “hallowed.” One imaginative interpretation is that on the seventh day God kicked back, opened arms wide, and laughed and laughed, making all things whole and holy.
Perhaps people of faith should become lifelong players. It’s the play that keeps us in sync with the deep and abiding joy in which God created the world. It’s the joy that led David and Miriam to dance and Sarah to burst out laughing. It’s the zany wordplay that saturates the Hebrew texts. Jesus, for one, told great stories—no doubt getting huge laughs poking fun at the religious elite.
“Play is called recreation,” says Brown, “because it makes us new again, it re-creates us and our world.”
Back at the local pool, the 15-minute rest period was ending. Lifeguards remounted their tall chairs. Kids crept closer to the water’s edge. There was a moment of absolutely silent, suspended joy. Whistles shrieked. A hundred kids leaped back into the pool with all the energy of summer lifting them into a massive communal splash.
When was the last time you played hard, laughed until your sides hurt, or lost yourself completely in some frivolous pastime that didn’t involve a video screen?
Play hard. Pray fiercely. Sleep deeply. And go to work with a silly smile on your face.
Rose Marie Berger, a Sojourners associate editor, is a Catholic peace activist and poet.