On the Importance of Play: At Work, at Home, and with Family

I often have dreams of my childhood home, my lovely childhood home, an old Victorian house on Windsor Ave in West Acton Massachusetts. Sometimes these dreams involve playing with boyhood pals in the front, side and back yards of the house. When I was a child—I lived there between the ages of around 10 and 17–I used to spend countless hours playing in the back yard with neighborhood chums. We played frisbee, tag, kickball, and basketball. My step-dad had hung a basketball net above our garage and we spent many an afternoon on our driveway playing pick-up games or just seeing from how far we could shoot a basket.

When we weren’t outside playing, we were inside playing role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons. Of course we watched quite a lot of telly, but we didn’t have game consoles. We did on occasion go out to the video game parlors or the local bowling alley with its miniature golf course. And above all, we cycled. We cycled all over Massachusetts by the time I was in high school. And swam on the high school team. And shared record albums, and... the list goes on.

The motivation for this post came from a dream I had last night. In my dream, I was playing a game of croquet with a childhood friend in my backyard, and we were knocking those balls all over the yard and into the neighbor’s yard! The thunk of mallet on ball! Then, in the way that dreams often twist and turn, I was explaining to my step-dad in the present day that I had just had this dream—and probably I haven’t even thought about playing croquet in our back yard for decades!

While Freud might interpret such a dream in one way and Jung in another, my own immediate reaction upon awakening on a fine Sunday morning was to feel the need to go outside and play! Since my wife and younger daughter were heading out to the pool for a swim, I asked my older daughter who is 13 if she would like to go out into our neighborhood in Shanghai and hit the birdie around.

Well, first of all it was a challenge to motivate her to even get out of bed. Then, once she was awake, her immediate instinct was to grab for her computer (I had already taken away her iPhone). But this was exactly what (I feel) my dream was about! The need to connect physically with friends and family through physical play! And the feeling that that sort of activity which used to consume so many hours of my childhood days has been steadily eroded by the ubiquity of electronic devices in our lives. As well as by other things.

Now, granted, we live in a big, crowded Chinese city, so our lives are bound to be different from that of my own childhood in a small colonial Massachusetts town. Still, there must be ways to integrate some play into our weekends. My wife has done so by signing up for tennis and swim lessons for her and our younger daughter. But my older daughter doesn’t have those activities now (she used to)—instead she goes off to a supplementary math class on a Saturday morning like so many other Chinese kids her age (note: my daughter is half-Chinese and culturally and linguistically completely bilingual).

So, back to the situation at hand: my goal was to motivate my teenage daughter to drop her iPhone and computer and come outside to hit some birdies with her dad. What teenage girl wouldn’t love to take up such an opportunity to bond with her father? You get my drift.

Anyhow, through a combination of coaxing, cajoling, empty threats, the “real” punishment of taking away her computer, followed by some pleading, negotiation and deal-making, I did eventually get her to come outside. Once we started playing, after a couple minutes we entered that magic bonding zone, where it was just us, the rackets, the birdie, and endless sky. We played around 15 minutes, working up a good sweat, and that was enough for us.

My point is that we all need to do a lot more of this. Somehow, we need to integrate play more into our daily lives. I’m not so worried about my daughters, who get plenty of opportunity for sports and other forms of play in their schools (even though they are Chinese schools with lots of homework!) I’m more worried about myself, and my own friends and colleagues who are also advancing into middle age.

My typical day is this: I get up, have breakfast and coffee while reading The NY Times online, and scanning my Facebook page for interesting news items. Then I drive my car to campus and spend much of the day either sitting around in meetings or doing admin work in my office. I then head back to my apartment in Kunshan around 6 pm, make dinner for myself (note: I live alone on weekdays and this is one of my favorite activities), check more emails, and later settle in front of the TV or computer screen to continue with a series I’m watching—and by Jimminy there are so many great series’ out these days!Or sometimes I play some guitar or keyboards for relaxation.

I do try to get to the pool now and then and should do so more often, but once the day picks up it’s hard to leave campus and by evening I’m pretty exhausted. Such is the life of a higher administrator. Also I’m often charged with the task (a delightful one I’ll admit) of taking distinguished visitors and guest speakers out to dinner.

Once in a while I’ll head into town to catch up with the bar and club scene in Kunshan, which I’ve been keeping tabs on since I moved there three years ago. Lately I’ve been able to do this more often since some of our new faculty are also inclined to explore those scenes. And I find that some of my best conversations with faculty and other colleagues are held over beers at live music pub like Eagle Bar where the band is playing good old classic rock tunes.

I do wonder if we could find more opportunities on campus to hold meetings and conversations while engaged in some form of play—maybe physical games or maybe just something like walking around outside. Just the physical movement is enough to jog the brain and get us out of the trap of holding meetings while sitting in confined rooms.

I want to encourage more of this kind of campus culture in future. It’s healthy and stimulating and good for getting out of mental traps as well. I also intend to do some more “playful” things in future with our community as it grows. This will include holding some early evening walking tours and some later evening bar crawls. But I also want to get more physical activities in my day—so I’m going to take up my younger colleague’s continual offer to play squash in the sports arena in my neighborhood. And I hope to ride my bike more often to and from campus—and go for that swim more often too!

It’s hard to find time for play when you’re working for a “start up” and the pressure is relentless and you’re being handed new and challenging assignments constantly. But even in the midst of such a hurricane of activities it’s important to find more time for physical play—and that’s what my dream was reminding me.

I need not remind this audience of how much time I’ve spent working on this as a research topic—after all, much of my research and writing and filmmaking has been about play in the form of singing, playing music, drinking, and dancing in bars, clubs, ballrooms, and discos. But as I’ve transmogrified (calcified?) into an administrator over the past few years, I feel that the role of play in my own personal life has been steadily eroding, and these childhood dreams are reminders of this. The historian Huizinga called us “Homo Ludens”. At our core, we are playful creatures, not desk-bound automatons, or as the social media companies would have it, slaves to our devices. Or at least, we shouldn’t be.