Play is important for children and adults too. What would it be like if everything you did felt like play?

Thought for the Day 7/8/2014

Summer holidays are a challenge. My five year-old son can run all day if he’s with other children. If he isn’t, he drags me behind him, struggling to match his energy and stay interested in the scenarios that fill his imagination.

Yesterday was National Play Day, when community organisations across the country held outdoor play events. Alongside it, the Play Return report, published yesterday, argued for the benefits of unstructured outdoor play in developing children’s physical wellbeing, social skills and mental health.

It’s part of a wider debate about the direction of education and our children’s lives. Advocates of learning through play draw on the findings of psychologists that from their earliest years children use play to understand their bodies, become curious about their environments, solve problems and interact with others. Through more advanced play they learn to empathise and imagine alternatives to the existing reality.

Our schools’ culture in recent years of assessment, targets and results risks marginalising play. But valuing it means questioning attitudes that affect adult lives as well. Modern working culture also emphasises performance and assessment; and our things-to-do lists, work targets and career plans can easily drive our lives. Eventually, focusing on where we want to be in the future becomes a habit, and even when we stop working we carry on worrying and planning.

This is what Buddhism’s getting at when it says that the compulsive desire to ward off threats or cling to pleasure is what creates our suffering. The alternative, which is the spirit of Buddhist practice, is experiencing our lives for what they are and meeting challenges with openhearted curiousity. That is, with an attitude of playfulness.

The point of play is that it has no point. We play for enjoyment, not profit, and that, in itself, liberates us from the culture of strain. Sometimes, for Buddhists, this playful alternative means being happy to do nothing. Sometimes it means working intensely for what we believe in, but staying in touch with a sense of enjoyment and creativity.

Playing with my son is a pleasure just like that. But it’s hard to match a five year-old’s capacity for play. Before long I notice my preoccupations creeping back and I feel the pull of getting on with things – adult things, things that matter. I have to remind myself that playing together also matters. Whether or not we learn something, this is our life. Just this. Right now.

BBC Report