I was a child of the 1970’s. The shag carpet in my bedroom was olive green. I recall that the building blocks had to be carefully placed in order to not tip over in the depth of the turf. One was a cylindrical shape, another a rectangle and yet another was an arch which spanned roughly three inches across. The faint scent of ashy wood could be discerned as the toys were scattered out on the floor around me. “Almost there”, two rectangles as footers, upon which were standing cylinders and the arch was being placed cautiously when my bedroom door was opened. “Honey, it’s time for some lunch”. My mother’s ankles were nearly covered by the length her orange, floral summer dress. Couldn’t she see that men were working here? My mood became bent and slightly indignant. The smell of grilled cheese snapped me out of the trance. “Come wash your patties,” my mother giggled as she, undoubtedly, caught a glimpse of the thin plastic red fireman’s hat which adorned my head. “OK mom”. I was almost three years old, and this is the first memory I have of life on earth.
Children don’t just play, they transform. They are superheroes, professional wrestlers, ballerinas, mommies and daddies. In that moment, I WAS a construction worker and people were depending on my triumphant bridge to get home from work and see their children. And, here’s the kicker; nobody taught me to do this. Play is an essential, and instinctual skill for neurological development and recovery. Children know what to do. British Child Psychologist and Physician, D.W. Winnicott articulates this reality in his offering Playing and Reality. By “playing”, he meant not only the ways that children of all ages play, but also the way adults “play” through making art, or engaging in sports, hobbies, humor, meaningful conversation, et cetera. At any age, he saw play as crucial to the development of authentic selfhood, because when people play they feel real, spontaneous and alive, and keenly interested in what they’re doing. More recently, we have labeled this entire skill set as “mindfulness” and countless resources for living a mindful life can be found with a simple Google search.
High on the metropolitan edge of a river valley, on the northeastern side of Grand Rapids, Michigan hangs a glorious tire swing. Over the past two months, I have surveyed 40 of my patients at Grand Rapids Therapy Group to find that 36 are aware of the existence of this monument to childhood. Not only that, my qualitative findings are that faces light-up with delight when discussing the swing. Adults are drawn to the memories of playfulness and abandon. Perhaps these are imaginations of swinging all the way to the stars and floating weightlessly in space. Or, perhaps, just the fluttering stomach pangs from a descent back to earth. Yet, for most, these are just distant memories of a simpler time when these were not just unlocked fancy. They were realities. But, why is it that, as adults, we stop playing? Is life too busy? Are demands too unaccommodating? Does the thought of taking “time-out” induce greater stress?
Children are stressed too. The sheer volume of daily learning is taxing on the nervous system as young ones store memories, assimilate experiences and act-out associated emotions. One walk with a toddler through a forest makes the point very clear. The smell of the pine needles, the crunch of last season’s leaves under their feet, the swooping Pileated woodpecker who makes it’s presence known as if to say “this is my home”… there is so much to learn. A delightful assault on every sense, on a microscopic-level, looks like new synapses being formed, the evolving understanding of the world and who the child is, in that world. The toddler responds in two ways, sleep and mindful play, to reduce stress and ready for more growth.
The stress-reduction attributes of play do not cease in adulthood. So, what would happen if the movers and shakers, the bread-winners, the caretakers of this world would take the time for the tire swing? “Tire-Swinging” is your invitation to return to the place that your inner child knows its glory. This is the place where you ARE an Astronaut, a Time Traveler, a star Ball-Player. This is the place that you come alive and possibilities become probabilities and probabilities are realities; if only for a moment in time.
Here are some helpful ways to get started engaging with your own personal Tire-Swinging adventure. Begin with a contemplation of your own youth. What captured your imagination? At the age of 8 years old, how would you have answered the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up”? This may add some clarity. Now, consider places which you find engaging for interactive play.
- The dunes at Hoffmaster State Park
- Your neighborhood playground
- Local comic-book stores and hobby shops
- Your local sports fields
Your play does not have to be overtly rambunctious, nor subdued. It is strictly your place to find a mindful experience that hits you where it counts; where your spirit soars. It may be in the insertion of the last puzzle piece or watching your golf ball soar through and endless blue sky. Get in touch with these primal feelings and now you are in your Tire-Swinging moment. Give it a try and let us know how it goes. I would love to hear from you.