How much time do you have in your schedule for play? For selfless joy? For something that has no apparent purpose other than delighting you? Most of us will have little to no space carved out for such frivolity, and if you're a woman, especially with children, then it's even more likely the answer is zero.

I was recently introduced to this idea of ‘play’ as an adult and I thought it sounded silly. Play is obviously for children. Adults don’t have time to play, especially parents. There are barely enough hours in the day to get everything done that's required just to survive, let alone time to do something for ‘fun’. 

‘Play’ is one of the core ideas of ‘This is not a book about Benedict Cumberbatch’ by Tabitha Carvan - I have mentioned this book before and will probably mention it again because it is basically 280 pages explaining why we need to play as adults and why it's so important, especially for women. As the book's title suggests, it is not a book about Benedict Cumberbatch but the author's crush on the UK actor is used to highlight how one loses their teenage freedom, fandom and passion as they transition to adults who become weighed down with the seriousness and duty of everyday life.

Something happens during those years from teenager to adult where you stop loving things as unabashedly as you once did. Whether the change is triggered intrinsically or extrinsically there is this unfair judgement that's made on female superfans. Carvan uses 

Beatlemania as an example of super female fans who are dismissed as crazy - even the word mania suggests some kind of illness.

Women are expected to mature as they age, and gracefully please. We’re expected to care and nurture and to grow wise. In order to do this we have to let go of the ‘unnecessary’. As women this is programmed from an early age. 

I’ve always thought our parenting is very equal between the kids but when it comes to their interests we treat them differently. Frank for example was really into diggers and digging so we got out every single book on heavy machinery from the library, we’d go for walks to construction sites to see the action and we really encouraged and supported his passion. Alice on the other hand is into unicorns, glitter, pink and purple, rainbows and ribbons. Rather than being supportive of this, we’re dismissive of it, secretly hoping that she’ll grow out of it sooner rather than later.

From the kids perspective they are both really into something - For Franks it’s Diggers and Alice is a ‘girly’ colour palette but our response as parents is very different. This is not because I don’t want Alice to be dressed head to toe in pink and glitter - to be honest I think it great - but social and cultural bias implies this is a lesser interest and will probably pass. Even the word ‘girly’ feels derogatory in this paragraph. 

Alice is 5 and already her freedom to love something for the hell of it is being repressed - obviously in realising this unbalance we are openly and wildly supporting her love for all things ‘girly’. When I reflect back on my own youth, I remember hiding away and transcribing all of the lyrics to Rock Superstar by Cypress Hill because I was embarrassed about what others would think, spending all that time doing something so ‘unnecessary’. 

This is what happens. As we grow and ‘mature’ we remove space for the frivolous. We fill in every moment with serving others as professionals, parents, friends and family members. If there is any space left it is normally spent resting, recovering or watching Netflix. ‘Play’ has accidentally been removed from our to-do lists and we need to bring it back. Quick.

The definition of play is engaged in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose. There is nothing about being a kid there at all. In ‘Stolen Focus - Why you can’t pay attention’ by Johann Hari he suggests that the restriction and limitation of free play in modern children's lives is dramatically affecting their ability to focus. 

Hari highlights how incredibly prescribed our children's lives are today. That from the moment they wake up they’re on a schedule. Get up, breakfast, get dressed, go to school, timetables classes all day - perhaps an hour tops of ‘free play’ in over designed and over safe playgrounds, then home for homework, maybe an hour of free time then dinner and bed. Even getting your kids into sport is signing them up for another set of rules and limitations to be enjoyed in a group setting, wearing matching t’shits, on some grass. I may be slightly exaggerating the situation, but when I think back to my childhood in New Zealand during the late 80’s and 90’s I remember long days outside in the bush. Going out in the morning and only coming back in for meals. Play wasn’t scheduled, it was just what you did.

The act of ‘play’ is how we advance a raft of social skills but it also is where we find out what we’re into, this is how we naturally develop ‘attention’. School systems are mostly designed to test students and teach them what they need in order to pass these tests - while there is merit in this it doesn't work for everyone. I look at Frank, our eldest who really struggles to sit still and absorb what's being taught and I wonder if he wasn’t having to learn in order to be tested on what his ‘education’ could look like.

If Frank was marked on playing the kid would be an A Student. He would happily fill his days adventuring and figuring out how things worked, instead we make him sit still and listen in the classroom all day. In 2002 George W Bush signed the ‘No Child Left Behind Act’ that standardised testing across the US and in the four years that followed the diagnosis of severe attention problems in children went up 22%. Coincidence? Probably not.

It doesn’t matter if you're a child or an adult, prioritising play in your life is crucial. If you're a woman then it's even more important because the chances are you’ve been inadvertently denying yourself some pure, selfless joyfulness for a really long time. 

Once I realised this lack of play in my life the universe stepped in and offered a suggestion. If I helped out some talented friends of mine with their band branding, I would accept bass lessons as payment. Ever since I was in my teenage bedroom handwriting lyrics, I’ve loved music and I’ve always wanted to play an instrument. I tried the guitar a while ago but it turns out that the rhythm in me was destined for the bass.

I’ve had four lessons now and I’m learning how to play ‘Surface Pressure’ from the Encanto Movie - which makes sense when you realise that Alice plays it 14 times a day. Perhaps my next song to learn will be Rock Superstar by Cypress Hill which would really impress my teenage self and bring this story nicely back to the start. Whatever song is next, the point is that this is play! Learning Bass is doing something for no-one else's benefit other than my own! And it's fun, so fun! In my last lesson I played bass to a live drum kit and it was the coolest thing I’ve ever done. 

The joy that bass (free play) brings to me ripples to every other area of my life. I think the only loser here is Matt now has to listen to me practise bass in the evenings, which is as bad as you can imagine but it's so worth every cringe look I get. Finding space in your life to play is a game changer and I’d encourage you to immediately figure out what brings you joy and make room for it.

Video of the week
Cypress Hill - (Rock) Superstar (Official Video)
Podcast of the week
You are good: Raiders of the Lost Ark with Amanda Smith
Font of the week
Shrill: Font of the week by Pizza Typefaces

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