After awhile the older ones disperse to bikes and scooters. One very young girl is still at the swing.
She has pulled herself up, barely perched on the seat and her feet just graze the ground as she begins slowly and deliberately going in tippy-toe circles, holding tight to the rope in each hand.
Several times her feet skid out from under her and she slips off the seat. Then she starts all over again, teaching herself how to twirl.
It has begun to rain softly. She doesn’t seem to notice. She is focused and intent; head down, concentrating, feeling the physics of opposing forces as she tries again.
I admire the way she keeps at it. She does not seem at all perturbed.
As I watch, I connect to something alive in my own heart. The feeling of exploration and intention, of engaging a challenge on purpose. Incrementally closing in on coordination, adjusting, trying again, tweaking …expanding the edge until finally…finally ….Whoooeeee!….letting go for the unwinding…the payoff…the spinning and laughing into a whole new experience of freedom and accomplishment.
That is such a wonderful feeling.
And very different from the kinds of exhilarating experiences that don’t require that focus, effort, or learning – Like the difference between learning to spin on the swing and going on a roller coaster ride. Both wonderrrrrrrfulllll. Both so much fun! But…for me, not the same kind of satisfaction in the payoff.
Play and the Brain
When Stuart Brown describes the ways we are biologically “built for play” it becomes clear why the challenge of learning through play is so important. Chapter three of his book Play was so packed with interesting information about development across the lifespan in different species, about play and the brain… I hardly know where to start. Here are just a couple of threads that resonated with me.
There is no question, we change our brains through play. As we explore and expand, we grow new nerve connections. Brown suggests humans continue to play throughout the lifespan, because we need to keep learning and growing in these very specific ways…we continue to play because it is the brain’s “secret to success.”
Play provides an extended period of flexible adaptation, openness to change, and the ability to figuratively “turn on a dime” when the situation requires it.
When we play, the brain is learning how to learn, how to problem solve, and how to meet novel situations in the most adaptive way possible. Keeping play alive through adulthood is associated with increased neuronal growth in the brain and it may be a protective factor as we age.
A State of Mind
And here’s news worth noting: Play is defined less by the activity itself and more by the quality of our engagement. In other words, “Play is a state of mind…” and we decide.
We make an activity play because we say so.
I recently took up mountain biking. It’s one way to keep up with our two young dogs and spend more time outside. I’ve been commuting by bike off and on for years, but this is a whole different deal. I am in new territory on two wheels.
So, getting the feel of the bike, up on an old logging road, I was loving the gentle meandering route; the crunch of gravel, the sunshine…taking in the sights. Fabulous!
Then, coming out of a blissful downhill stretch, all of a sudden, (I could have seen this coming) a really BIG HILL. REALLY big. It was…rough. Rocky and tangled surfaces to navigate…did I say, new territory? My first(and familiar) reaction was “Oh NO! (sinking feeling)…it’s really STEEP…and really, really long…and…and…”
I put my head down. I started tensing up for the task ahead…resigned myself to the struggle. And then…something happened. I don’t know, maybe I just focused on the ground in front of me because looking up was, well, just more UP…so, I started studying the surface under the tires.
I didn’t try to think of it differently, but very abruptly as I slowed down… I found myself in a game of “Wow! I wonder how long I can I keep my balance?”
I began sensing the surface through the bike and focusing-in to find my way through. Feeling the newness of it in my muscles–(tendrils of neuron fibers extending and connecting in my brain!). My body didn’t really know how to do this yet… and yet…I was figuring it out…inch by inch…tottering, tipping over sometimes… and it felt… great!
One moment struggle – the next moment play. Who knew?
Just doing the next thing. Completely engaged in the “I wonder if…” goal, but not in a stressful way.
Nia instructors use the term “tight but loose” to describe a specific quality of focus and precision in balance with freedom, ease and exploration. My hunch is that this is very closely connected to play. It is a sensation we can cultivate through mindfulness. Paying attention when it happens out of the blue, and over time, honing in and choosing play on purpose.
So, my practice this week and my invitation to you, if it appeals, is to tune-in to the physical sensation of play. Noticing when effort and engagement feels nourishing and fulfilling, and when it doesn’t. Exploring the balance of “tight but loose” (more on that in a later post) both on the bike and off.
And in situations we would normally not think of as play… who knows, maybe we’ll surprise ourselves!
© 2012 Centerpoint Network LLC
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