Why I’m so Serious about Play
The idea of serious play may seem contradictory. I think it’s a common belief that “serious” and “play” are in opposition to each other and simply don’t belong in the same sentence.
From my perspective, these words perfectly fit together when it comes to personal growth, authenticity, and conscious living.
One of my university degrees is a Bachelor of Recreation Studies. When I first entered the program, my vision for the future was that I would end up working in either the area of sports coaching or leading recreation programs for youth. At some point in the program, more by fate than by choice, I was directed down the path to a specialization in therapeutic recreation.
What I valued most about my learning was coming to understand the clear distinction between recreation programming and therapeutic recreation. On the one hand, participating in activities as entertainment and on the other hand, engaging in activities with a clear intention for growth and healing.
It wasn’t long before I knew I was on my right path by becoming a therapeutic recreation specialist. For twenty years, before becoming a life coach, I worked with various populations using recreation and play interventions to support people to:
- Increase confidence and self-esteem
- Have greater involvement in the community
- Strengthen interpersonal skills and relationships
- Enhance well-being and overall health (physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual)
- Experience a greater sense of success (self-defined)
- Experience the sense of freedom that comes with play
- Let go of the fear of judgement of others
- Identify unique, authentic gifts and talents
Honestly, being a therapeutic recreation specialist wasn’t much different than what I do today as a life coach and grief recovery specialist. I really hold onto the value and effectiveness of using play and nature based activities as opportunities for growth and emotional healing.
Most of those years as a therapeutic recreation specialist I worked with the population of youth-at-risk. These were kids who were neglected, abused and used. The communities and environments in which they were growing up did little, if anything, to support their healthy development and growth. In fact, the opposite was true. The people who were raising them had themselves been marginalized and therefore did not have the skills to support their children. Most of these kids were taught that crime and violence were necessary for survival. They learned that the best ways to cope with their emotional pain were to use drugs, alcohol, and/or to harm others and themselves.
It was a gift for me to guide these kids to see another side of themselves…through play. To be clear, my job wasn’t to plan programs for them like going to movies, playing ping pong, doing crafts, or learning how to shoot a basketball. My role was to guide them to discover themselves by letting them make their own decisions about the activities they wanted to do. It was through play they could explore their passions and gifts with me offering an external view to point out the things they couldn’t see in themselves. In the trusting relationship that we established, there was a greater willingness to take risks and try new things. I helped them to see that failure wasn’t a bad thing that was punishable, but rather an opportunity to learn and grow. We climbed trees, we winter camped, we did back country bike trips, we put on Christmas craft sales, we taught ourselves to play instruments, we designed and sewed our own clothes, we made up games.
There was something very serious about play because I made a conscious decision to bring the therapeutic qualities of play to my work with those kids. I thought it could cause more harm than good to only offer activities as distractions from the problems in their lives and to alleviate boredom. Through conversation and reflection, we focused on discovering their strengths and developing the skills they could use to cope with problems as they arose. By being mindful and intentional about play they began to heal some of their pain rather than hide from their pain.
Today, in my practice as a Life Re-Creation Coach working with adult clients, I hold onto many of the things I learned as a therapeutic recreation specialist.
- I always ask people to explore and play when trying new approaches or ways of thinking. This means a shift to being open to outcome rather than being attached to an expected outcome. The focus is more on experiential learning rather than strategic planning.
- I believe that when we take time to reflect on our (play) experiences, it’s an opportunity to become more self-aware and get closer to living authentically. So even with the Camp KidAgain Retreat and Hooky Days, which have a focus on activity and play, I will include circle discussions to reflect on new awareness.
- Play, especially in nature, is healing. Play gifts us with the energy to face the healing work that we may need to do in order to live our lives more fully.
I see too many of my adult peers not taking play seriously and giving it conscious attention. In my opinion, alcohol use has become one of the most common and normalized play activities for adults. It’s certainly effective for distracting people from the stresses of life and it’s an easy route to fun and silliness. Shopping, eating, sports entertainment and social media have also become go-to play choices for adults. Common and distracting? Yes. Therapeutic? Nope.
Many people, especially in retirement, look for activities to simply fill time and avoid boredom. It’s a shame when people loss a sense of purpose and an avenue to express and share their gifts and talents. When people are looking outside themselves to feel fulfillment, it so quickly leads to overconsumption.
What I think is most important is for people to discover their deeply held needs and then consciously engage in personally chosen activities to meet those needs. Call it play. Call it passion. Call it recreation. Call it purpose. The point is to intentionally do the things that are an authentic expression of who we are at our core. The world around needs more people who are willing to play. It will bring peace. It will bring joy. It will bring healing…for all of earth’s creatures.
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