Play lives inside limits

July 25, 2012 No Comments »

About three weeks ago, on a beautiful warm evening in Portland, I bent down to unlock my bike and felt something go snap in my back just below my rib cage—pain melted down the right side of my spine and into my hip…”Oh great!”

It had been a long time since I’d felt that sensation, but I knew it well enough … I got a sinking feeling I wasn’t going to be moving around much for awhile.

“What does this have to do with play you ask?

Fair question. I’ll circle back around…

Up until that evening, I’d been feeling pretty excited about rediscovering play. I was getting into the swing of it. Reading about the connection between movement and play, and recognizing that connection in the joy that kept me coming back whenever I moved-danced-ran…it was all making a lot of sense.

The research is clear supporting the links between physical activity and learning, movement and improved cognitive functioning. Movement, play and creativity are related, and movement can be a “first step back into play” for adults who have lost that connection.

I was getting ready to write more about this—and was trying out some new activities myself–recalling the kinds of play that connected me to a sense of energy and creativity when I was young…

…and then, I bent over to unlock my bike.  Suddenly, I wasn’t feeling so playful.

But I did keep reading, and I’m glad I did. When I came to the part where Brown talks about a natural tension that exists in play, the tension between freedom and limits, this is what jumped out at me:

“Play is a practice of balancing simultaneous and opposing needs.”

Wow. Yes…it is.

Play lives inside limits.

Any kind of play– games, sports, dancing, theater, imagination— it all becomes play, in part, because there are limits.

“The license to play comes from the safety of structure.”

If the limits aren’t inherent in the situation, then we create them, we impose them, and willingly. We call those limits “the rules of the game,” and by submitting ourselves happily to them, we create dynamic tension, useable friction, something to engage with creatively to increase our skill, acuity, awareness or strength.

Simultaneous and opposing needs.

That seemed to sum up my situation pretty well. Of course I wouldn’t typically think of something like a pulled muscle as an “agreed upon rule of the game” but then, why not? Was it that big a leap?

Circling back now…

Just about this time, I was slated to fill-in teaching for a colleague’s Nia classes, and my back? Well, not wanting to move so much.

What to do?

To my surprise, I didn’t really try to figure it out.

I put on some music and started moving…very slooooowly…just carefully exploring what I really could and couldn’t do; sensing the actual limits in time and space and in my body.

As I adapted and tweaked the movement, changed things where needed, I began to find my way to a middle-ground of space inside these new confines… Found ways of communicating the movement that aligned with what my body felt it could do.


The next day, in class, we talked about finding a sense of play inside our limits, whatever they may be, physical or otherwise. We took that hour to explore freedom inside the boundaries~ space inside constraints.

And the thing is—that space felt BIG — way bigger than I expected.

For that hour I said “yes” to my limits like I meant it. And this whole back injury started to feel a lot less like limitation and a lot more like play.

It was a blast.

*Have you missed any of the previous Book Club posts? Here are the links:

You know…it just feels…Playful!

We are “Built for Play



The content in this blog is for informational purposes, and does not constitute professional advice or treatment for any individual concern or condition. It is not a substitute for psychological or medical care.

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *