The happy play-play world of my second childhood
If there’s one thing we need to learn from our children, it’s that play is serious business. And you shouldn’t have to grow out of it, just because you’re a grownup.
It’s never too late to have a happy childhood. Whether you have your own children or not, there are plenty of kids around to remind us of a time when play was the most important thing. Not school, not money, not your car’s paint job, just the fun stuff: that’s what we want.
It’s easy to forget the yaya. That’s what we call the crazy, the fun, the ‘what the hey’. It’s squeezed out by responsibility – doing the dishes and the laundry while others cavort around the lounge, making pillow forts, or riding with their skater pals in the street outside.
There’s a sign on the wall entreating me not to forget it, the yaya, when things seem heavy and serious, when I’m exhaling, and a frown has overtaken my brow.
As a parent I am privileged to have children nearby – youngsters who remind me to close the door because “the dragons will come in”, and provide a gullible audience for fantasy.
It’s a two-way thing – I pretend, but I believe; they believe, but pretend. I find that I am often my best self with young people: there is little room for anything inauthentic.
Despite the lunacy of some games, the obstacle courses my daughter designs, for example, where one has to walk backwards over a snaking coiled up garden hose and then hit a plastic duck into a tin with a stick, play is serious, and a dedicated activity. Leave your damn cell phone elsewhere and pay attention now.
The kids are all in the lounge with friends when a strange siren goes off somewhere across the neighbourhood roofs.
“Oh shucks, do you know what that is?” I ask. What is it? The sound made when someone has been caught shoplifting at Spar/escaped from Valkenburg/forgotten to flush the loo?
There’s a look of blank suspense on their faces, scanning mine, not sure what to believe. Hey, this fantasy thing goes both ways. I get to be a kid too. As long as I know where to draw the line, drawing on all I know and have yet to learn.
One of the favourite things I’ve learnt in play, and which often makes me laugh up my sleeve, with my and other children is the ‘pause’ injunction.
Thus, mid-wrestle, when your chances are woefully down, and diminishing by the second, it’s okay to yell ‘PAUSE!’ All hands are freed, and a balance is restored. Or you can blow your nose or go to the loo. “Pause!” It’s a great device.
The same as our family safe word, if someone starts to lose their cool: ‘Strawberries.’ It means – back off, calm down, retreat. NOW.
Children – and adult children – allow us to keep our imaginations alive. How else are you going to hustle to survive? It’s the only thing I hope remains intact, perhaps even nourished, in my children’s schooling.
But most schools crush it out of you, with their turgid protocols, and play is constrained to break time, where songs are sung, and games are played.
Schools are institutions, and the homework they ask us to do only produces stress. We try and get it out the way asap. That’s what mainstream is all about – mainstream requirements. Is that what we want? We have little choice but to play around the edges, as much as we can.
Play requires patience, and surrender. Giving in to the rules of the game, and going with them, finding something that flows, gets easier the more you play.
My eldest son is notorious for changing the rules midstream, but upon reflection, he’s just trying to apply what he’s just learnt, although it is tedious, when all you want is for him to pass the damn ball. Patience is required. And more patience.
In the same way that parents can learn to walk a child around the block so that it eats up an easy hour, play is slow, and free of imperatives. All you have to do is believe.
You’re the wizard who turns pillows into vegetables? What vegetable is that? The rules of theatrical improvisation – saying ‘yes, and’ – make play happen.
I love it. No-one on their death bed said “I wish I’d had less fun in life.” As a primary school teacher, I learnt that children learn best through play. Photosynthesis? Meh. Instead, let’s have some people being rays of sun. Go outside and climb through the windows and high five anyone who’s wearing green. Photo means light. Synthesis is something being made. Light making plant energy. And all sorts of other.