Growing up as an only child on a remote Tennessee cattle farm, my summers were spent largely within the confines of my own mind. I roamed green pastures until the humidity – or the threat of copperheads – drove me inside. I watched hours of “Leave it to Beaver,” followed by “The Brady Bunch.” Sometimes my mother drove me to the library or, if I was lucky, the pool. With the exception of a few Girl Scout camps, my summers were as boring and unstructured as those of my storybook heroes: Anne of Green Gables, Mary Lennox in “The Secret Garden” or, my favorite, the siblings in Edward Eager’s “Half Magic,” who discover a magical coin that grants their wishes, but only by half (was there ever a better metaphor for childhood?).
To make up for my own lack of siblings, I conjured fairies, elves and leprechauns, giving them the most exotic names I knew: Ambrose, Demeter, Vodka. I cleared out drawers to house them: in the china cabinet, the guest bedroom dresser, my mother’s antique hutch. Inside I glued down bits of scrap, bright felt rugs and crayoned paper daisies. I built beds out of toothpicks and cotton balls. I sewed blankets from old lace.
One could argue that this type of play was the result of gender socialization, that I was conditioned to practice motherhood from an early age. True enough. But I was also engaging in what fiction writers and video game developers call worldbuilding: constructing an imaginary universe, one I could rule over like a benevolent god. There is power in motherhood, after all.
On mornings after rains, I occasionally looked out my second-story bedroom window to see a large, dark green circle on the yard, maybe 10 feet in diameter, where the grass had grown taller. My mother, a natural worldbuilder, told me they were pixie rings where the fairies had danced the night before. She didn’t give me some scientific answer about underground fungi, as I would give my own children (she also didn’t have the power of Google). She preserved my sense of wonder, my faith in the unseen. If fairies were real, and if they were dancing under my window at night, then surely, I believed, the universe was wider than my mind.
I look back on those long, green days on the farm with mixed emotions. On one hand, my imaginative worldbuilding shaped my consciousness, and probably led me to choose a writing life. But on the other, I was bored, and often lonely. So when I had three daughters of my own, I gave them the things I’d once craved: siblings, geographical access to a city and hours of scheduled play. My husband and I became, like so many modern parents, Co-directors of Play, overseeing school sports, nature camps, piano and tennis lessons, pottery classes and swim meets. I made calendars to keep our activities straight. So many calendars. If my children were bored, it was hard not to take it as a personal affront.
Don’t get me wrong; I know how privileged I am to be able to offer my kids these opportunities, even if something is lost in the shuffle. In her book “All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood,” journalist Jennifer Senior contends this managed play is a fairly new development, born of children’s increasing isolation. Modern middle-class children are raised in smaller families with larger houses, often located in suburbs far from city centers. According to the Pew Research Center, around a quarter have no siblings. They are more likely to have their own bedrooms, or even playrooms. This isolation is challenging for parents, and partly why we overschedule our kids; for we worry if we didn’t, they would have no friends. I would add that technology too plays a role, as increasingly busy parents use activities as hedges against screen time, that ever-present beast, ready to pounce the minute we turn our backs.
What is play?
Child psychologist Jean Piaget called play “the work of childhood.” But what exactly constitutes play? And what about adulthood?
I asked myself these questions recently on a vacation to northern Michigan I took with my family, along with two female friends from college and their families. Here we were, three couples, five teenagers and two tweens, living blessedly unscheduled for an entire week. The house we shared was like a petri dish of recreation, where I could observe the different ways people played.
The first thing I noticed was the men were better at relaxing than the women. Though they are evolved dads who share in the cooking and childrearing, they didn’t seem to have the same “mindscroll,” that invisible to-do list that plagues most women I know. While the men read in the hammock or fly fished, my friend Shelley spent each morning planning that night’s dinner, obsessively ordering groceries from Instacart. My friend Shannon swept the kitchen approximately 500 times. I was forever unloading the dishwasher and collecting the wet towels and managing my kids’ play so much that I forgot about my own.
One morning over coffee, I asked a few of the adults for their definition of play. Shelley glanced up from her grocery list and mumbled something about how she couldn’t separate play from watching her kids play sports. Her eyes had that hundred-yard stare I knew well: the mindscroll. “Do we need more wine?” she asked, returning to her list.
Yes, I nodded.
Shannon, a middle school teacher, stopped wiping down a countertop to compose her thoughts. “It’s the ultimate vehicle for inquiry learning,” she said. “It tells me so much about children. Give me 30 minutes watching them on the playground, and I’ll know more about their place in the world than watching them at their desks all week.”
Next I asked my husband Neal, who works in investments for a foundation. “I think it’s about curiosity, the ability to ask why,” he said. “It’s one of the most important things to look for in the hiring process. It’s what humanizes people in the race against automation.”
Just then, Shannon’s husband Matt walked into the kitchen holding a fishing rod. I posed the question to him. “All I know is it means something very different to me than it does to my dog,” he said.
It struck me that the adults had radically different definitions of play, and that everyone approached play from their own worldview. Shelley came at it as a mother, Shannon as a teacher, my husband as a manager. And Matt … well, Matt’s response itself was playful, which reveals something about him. He doesn’t take life too seriously.
Later that day, the men took the kids out on the pontoon boat while the three women kayaked. We needed a break. As I pushed off the bank, my mindscroll lifted and I was able to appreciate the beauty of my surroundings: the unwrinkled surface of the water, the feathery clouds in the bluebird sky, my old friends paddling beside me, more beautiful to me than they were in their youth. A pair of mating dragonflies winged low across my lap. I entered a state of flow, marked by the rhythm of my oar parting the celadon water.
Eventually we reached an opening in the lake, and turned our kayaks to explore. We rounded the shore and gasped. Before us lay a blanket of lily pads, as if we had accidentally floated into a Claude Monet painting. I remembered reading once that water lilies were one of the first flowering plants to evolve on earth, dating back to the dinosaur era. That’s one of the reasons paleontologists believe they’ve survived so long — where hungry herbivores decimated land plants, water lilies remained safe in their aqueous cocoons. As I reached out and cupped my hand around a supple yellow bloom, I wondered if these flowers would outlive us all. I wondered about the worlds they’d seen, and the ones yet to come.
Look! whispered Shannon, pointing to an aloof sandhill crane eyeing us from the perch of a downed tree. The three of us set down our oars and sat in stunned silence, drinking in the wild majesty. The only sounds came from the water lapping the sides of our kayaks and the rumble of a distant boat. It dawned on me that it was probably our boat, the one we had rented, and our children were probably screaming their heads off enjoying the ride. They were at play, but so were we. That afternoon, we named our new world: Lily Pad Cove.
Maybe that’s it, I thought, my own definition. For me, play has something to do with worldbuilding. Just as it did when I was young, filling drawers for my fairies, or getting lost in a book, or imagining tiny creatures dancing under my window while I slept. Every vacation we take as adults is in itself a form of worldbuilding. I think that’s why it can be so hard to return to our normal lives afterward — not because vacations are so relaxing (let’s face it, they can be exhausting), but because it’s always difficult to transition between worlds.
Noticing moments of play
Children’s brains are wired for worldbuilding. But as our prefrontal cortexes mature, we become better at focus, at the mindscroll. In her book, “The Philosophical Baby,” philosopher and psychologist Alison Gopnik likens this shift to the brain going from being a lantern to a spotlight. A spotlight brain allows us to live functional adult lives, to pay the mortgage on time and get the kids fed. But also makes it harder to play. Play requires a freedom of consciousness. Play exists in opposition to the mindscroll. Play demands surrender to a greater power, one wider than our minds.
Modern parents are not very good at surrender. In our defense, we’re up against a lot. Colleges are brutally competitive and expensive. The wealth gap is widening. Social media is frankly terrifying. Maybe this is another reason we fill our children’s calendars with scheduled play: because it gives us the illusion of control in an unstable world. But can play be assigned? Can it be forced? Or are we just delegating our own mindscrolls to our children?
I don’t have the answers. In case it’s not clear by now, I don’t even have a working definition of play. But I’m paying more attention to it, and whatever we focus our attention on has a way of expanding beneath our gaze. I’ve begun noticing play everywhere, in the thump of my daughters’ footfalls above my head as they film an iMovie. In the whisk of my husband’s fly fishing rod furrowing the air. In my teenager’s raucous laughter coming from behind her bedroom door. Some days even in the tapping of my keyboard as my physical surroundings fall away, and I enter the flow of language. These moments rarely occur when we’re harried and overscheduled. They happen on languid Sunday afternoons, or in the evenings, when the sun sinks behind the pines and the day’s work is done.
As a parent, I’m getting better at leaving blank spaces on the calendar. This summer, I’ve been letting my teenager sleep in later than I care to admit in print. And recently I allowed my youngest daughter to quit the swim team because she, too, hated waking up early. Now she wakes up later but happier. She can’t do a butterfly stroke, but she’s taught herself how to make a mean smoothie bowl. To quote Joni Mitchell, something’s lost, but something’s gained.
It’s summer, after all. The world can wait.
Sarah Curtis’ essays have appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Creative Nonfiction, Salon, The Colorado Review and the anthology “River Teeth: Twenty Years of Creative Nonfiction.” She lives in Michigan, where she is at work on a biographical memoir. More of her writing can be found at sarahcurtiswriter.com.