Cultivating playfulness and the not so elusive sparkle

Over the last several weeks I have been thinking a lot about the idea of play and I keep coming back to something I read several years ago in the book Art of Possibility co written by Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra. I have a very vague memory of Mr. Zander highlighting his discovery in importance of paying attention to the sparkle in the eyes of his students.  He emphasized the idea that when they lose their sparkle you’ve lost them.

A few mornings ago at breakfast  I watched my kids play with their dad… it unfolded for me like a movie. This play was very subtle and easy… nothing overt or boisterous,  small gestures, hands on hands, giggles, eye rolling, tender teasing….. and with great appreciation I seemed to understand the nuances of positive family interaction in a new and simple way. Affectionate faces, little giggles, moments of goofy guffaws. I saw a family interacting in extended moments of love and affection. I was taking it all in, scanning the information banks of my mind looking for the resources that would help me understand and piece together the interactions in an intellectually meaningful way. So distracted and preoccupied by my thoughts about what I was witnessing, I didn’t even hear my youngest ask me a question…. All I could think about was how could I interpret and express these epic moments when I had time to scribble down my thoughts.

So I guess I don’t need to say that being playful does not come naturally for me. Oh I have my own independent and solitary kind of play, but being playful with other people just kind of escapes me.  In fact most of the time other people’s playfulness is off putting or confusing to me. I have a hard time understanding why they won’t focus, get down to business or just get serious about what is at hand.  This has been particularly challenging as a parent considering that both of my kids and husband all have playfulness in their top signature strengths profile according to the VIA (Values in Action)  character strengths survey…. and for me it is dead last.   As I watched the antics that morning  and thought about what was happening at my kitchen counter I realized playfulness is an essential element of healthy relationships. It is an experience of attachment that helps us to feel safe while we create strong bonds that help us learn resilience.  The giggles and the little connective laughter it turns out is a biological behavior that helps us engage in what is called by Dr. Richard Boyatzis the positive emotional attractor, it triggers the default mode network of our brain or what is considered the social brain. It is associated with being open to new experiences, being creative and being receptive to new information and innovation. It is the activity of the brain that is connected to engaging our parasympathetic nerve system…. thats the system that promotes a healthy immune system, happiness and wellbeing.  And right there at the University of My Kitchen Counter where I have spent countless hours studying positive psychology, relationships and change theory I also experienced in a few epic moments the field work that brought it all home…. playing with their dad… my kids sparkled.

The other night I sat with my youngest daughter on her bed and told her I’d been thinking a lot about how I’ve realized that she and I need to play more. She looked at me with surprise and in an exasperated, relieved and playful tone fell forward saying “Yes…. finally…… you understand!” While this dramatic display of her overwhelmedness from my statement was humorous and made us both laugh, it also was also supremely tragic in its message of  “what the hell took you so long  lady?”  And in those few moments I realized my own overwhelmingly desperate desire as a young girl  to play with my own family, to have the kind of playful attention and attachment with my parents and sibling. I longed for connection, PLAY, and recognition within my family of origin. With in about 3 minutes of conversation with my own child I understood deeply and personally the concepts presented in the work of  Dr. Edward Hallowell ‘s book “Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness.  So every night since our bedtime conversation she has asked me to play with her in someway… be it kickball, catch, swinging on the swing set, doing cartwheels… whatever…. and every night I have said YES!. I am becoming a bit more willing to engage in play and she sparkles just a bit more than usual.

Even before the breakfast play and before the bedtime conversation, this kind of new play engagement started without my  realization. I actually started with the suggestion that every night we would engage in family story time beginning with reading the Mysterious Benedict Society. Everyone was up for it, everyone wanted this kind of familial play, everyone scrambled onto my bed that night eyes sparkling, excited and ready to play with each other and the characters in the book…  Now this  story is about 4 children each having unique strengths, each feeling alone in the world and each establishing connection and attachment to the others throughout their adventures together.  As the four of us listened we giggled at the similarities that some characters had to our own family members, we shared knowing glances and we identified with funny little things that if we had not heard them described in the book, would have sworn were our own inside jokes. That night we started an evening ritual of play, of coming together for storytelling for connection and as it turns out, to find that not so elusive spark in each others eyes.

The more mindful I have become about play the more I see it throughout the day. Its there walking through the parking lot, driving in the car, avoiding the dull task of cleaning the room and doing homework. The more I recognize it the more I am willing to feed it and encourage it and accept it as a necessary, and imperative part of healthy and attached relationships.

So More Play I say… More Play!