Pondering play

Have you noticed lately that there seems to be a return to play? Adult coloring books are huge–I have two myself, and everyone I know seems to be collecting Funko Pop figures. (I might also have a few of those…I tried to resist but the Maleficents were just too cute. And then there was Wonder Woman.)

I think it’s a good thing. The world seems scarier and more violent these days. It’s not; that’s just our perception. By every possible measuring stick, we are doing better than at any other time in recorded history. We just have social media to broadcast hysteria about every damn thing that happens. And the message on mainstream media seems to default these days to BE AFRAID OF EVERYTHING. DID YOU KNOW YOUR HOUSEPET MIGHT KILL YOU? ALSO, YOU’LL DIE IF YOU SIT DOWN TOO LONG. YOU’LL ALSO DIE IF YOU SLEEP TOO LONG, BUT IF YOU DON’T GET ENOUGH REST, OH, GUESS WHAT? YOU’RE DEAD.

All that hand-wringing gets exhausting. So we turn to things that are simple and comforting instead, things that remind us of childhood. Creative play is consoling. It encourages mindfulness and serves creativity. There is no compelling reason NOT to do it. Well, there are always people who are sniffy about other folks having the wrong kind of fun, but we can ignore them. They don’t deserve another thought.

For Mother’s Day, my parents tucked a giant bubble wand into my gift bag. It’s silly and messy and I LOVE it. I blow bubbles for the dog who thinks I am made of magic, and that’s always fun. And conjuring those bubbles for him reminded me that it’s been FAR too long since I played for the sake of play. I started thinking about the kinds of things I did as a kid and compiled a play list, inspirations for the things I used to love and can love again. I plan to take at least a few minutes each day to do something silly just because I can, to do them without an inner critic commenting on how poorly I might do them or the fact that I might be doing something more productive with my time. That inner critic is just no fun and she needs a time-out.

So here’s my play list:

*Language lesson. Doesn’t sound much like play, but when I was a child, I was determined to teach myself French. I checked children’s books in French out of the library and pored over them, certain if I kept at it long enough I’d be able to decipher them. Yeah, it didn’t work. But I still get a thrill out of mastering the odd phrase in another language–and Italian seems like a frivolous language to learn. You can only really speak it in one country, so it’s impractical, decadent even! And the Duolingo app makes it seem like child’s play with their quirky little illustrations.

*Logic puzzle. Again, not the obvious choice. But I was in the gifted program, so my early school years were lousy with logic puzzles. I bought a book of Sherlock conundrums just to make it extra fun.

*Poetry. I loved poetry as a child, and skimming a classic poem takes me right back. The Poetry Foundation has a superb app that’s full of lovely things sorted by theme or age, so it’s easy to find children’s poems. I think they’re the best anyway…

*Drawing. I can’t draw. Like, at all. People always think I’m exaggerating when I say that even my snakes are a straight line, but NO. REALLY. I tried and tried throughout my childhood to draw anything better than a plain box house, but it never happened. I recently discovered Sachiko Umoto and I’m not looking back. Serious representational art is far too intimidating. Umoto’s illustrations are whimsical and fun–exactly the sort of drawing to appeal to a child. She breaks down her images into manageable lessons, and I can’t wait to start doodling. I managed a teacup the other day thanks to a quick lesson in Flow magazine, and IT LOOKED LIKE A TEACUP. It was five lines and some squiggles for steam, but it was the first recognizable thing I’ve ever drawn, and you would have thought it was the Mona Lisa for how proud I was of it. I have a feeling I’m going to be good at drawing chubby bear cubs…

*Collage. The refuge of the person who can’t draw. I have glued together magazine pictures for years to make collages for my novels, but once or twice I have done mixed media projects with a little watercolor paint and some glittery embellishments and they were beyond fun. I want to experiment with taking a classical image of a piece of art I love and zhuzhing it up.

*Needlecrafts. I’ve always played with needles, yarn, and fabric but I always put it down again because it seems like you should be making something USEFUL. Ugh. Why? The most fun I ever had with yarn was when I found a bright scarlet skein and crocheted 80 feet of chain stitch. It was perfectly useless, but I enjoyed it immensely.

*Coloring. I LOVED to color as a kid, and I loathed every teacher who criticized my color choices. (Holly Hobbie looked slamming in a black dress, Mrs. Cabla.) I have two coloring books I haven’t even opened yet. Time to break out the markers.

*Music lesson. I have never understood music. It’s mathematical and the assignment of notes to sounds seems so arbitrary. Here’s a real conversation I had with my piano teacher:

Her: This note is a C.

Me: How do you know?


But I’d still like to learn. So I might ferret out a kids’ music book and try to figure out the basics. (Pro tip: anything is more fun if you use a kids’ book to learn it. I studied endless knitting books and tutorials. I didn’t crack it until I found a book for children.)

*Sculpting. I’m talking PlayDoh style modeling here. I only ever sculpted snakes or snowmen as a kid, but a few weeks ago I was in an art supply store in New York and was utterly drawn to bricks of Roman clay. It was so SOLID, wrapped in Italian waxed paper. I just wanted to tear bits of it off an start MAKING something. Maybe a snake because my technique will certainly not have improved over the years, but I don’t care.

The key to all of these types of play is that I finally understand that there doesn’t have to be a point. I don’t need to pick up music with the goal of learning to play the cello. Hey, it could happen, but let’s be real: it won’t. And that’s fine. I don’t have to become fluent in Italian or learn to replicate the sketches of the Old Masters. I can just PUTTER with no goal except pleasure. Pleasure should be its own goal, its own justification for anything. The dog doesn’t expect anything out of the blown bubbles except to enjoy them. I need to take a page from his book.