“Growing old is mandatory, but growing up is optional.” – Walt Disney
Think play is only for kids? Time to think again. The Oxford English Dictionary defines play as an activity “to wield lightly and freely; to keep in motion.” I like the expansiveness of this definition; implies that the purpose of play is to lose oneself in a moment of lightness and freedom, such as when we play a board game, go wind-surfing, climb a mountain, take a cruise to nowhere, or let our imagination run wild drawing, painting, writing, crafting or acting.
Though it often gets buried in adulthood, the urge to play exists in all of us like embers that be turned into flames any moment at will. And why not? Science shows that adult play is critical in our head-spinning, stressful lives. Play has been shown to release endorphins, improve brain functionality, and stimulate creativity. And it can even help to keep us young and feeling energetic. Studies show that play improves memory and stimulates the growth of the cerebral cortex. Play has also been shown to trigger the secretion of BDNF, a substance essential for the growth of brain cells. To the extent play makes us more light-hearted and imaginative, it also makes us more interesting people to be around with. As Plato famously said, “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”
So, let us all “grow old but not grow up”, always imbuing our lives with a playful and curious spirit. To spur us on, here are three poems by celebrated poets who understood the meaning of play and expressed its delights in a way they do best, in words of great poetic beauty.
Playthings by Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941)
Child, how happy you are sitting in the dust,
playing with a broken twig all the morning.
I smile at your play with that little bit of a
I am busy with my accounts, adding up figures
by the hour.
Perhaps you glance at me and think. “What a
stupid game to spoil your morning with!”
Child, I have forgotten the art of being
absorbed in sticks and mud pies.
I seek out costly playthings, and gather lumps
of gold and silver.
With whatever you find you create your glad
games, I spend both my time and my
strength over things I can never obtain.
In my frail canoe, I struggle to cross the sea of
desire, and forget that I too am playing
Playgrounds by Laurence Alma Tadema (1836-1912)
In summer I am very glad
We children are so small,
For we can see a thousand things
That men can’t see at all.
They don’t know much about the moss
And all the stones they pass.
They never lie and play among
The forests in the grass.
They walk about a long way off;
And when we’re at sea,
Let father stoop as best he can.
He can’t find things like me.
But when the snow is on the ground
And all the puddles freeze,
I wish that I were very tall,
High up above the trees.
Green, Green is My Sister’s House by Mary Oliver (1935-2019)
Don’t you dare climb that tree
or even try, they said, or you will be
sent way to the hospital of the
very foolish, if not the other one.
And I suppose, considering my age,
it was fair advice.
But the tree is a sister to me, she
lives alone in a green cottage
high in the air and I know what
would happen, she’d clap her green hands,
she’d shake her green hair, she’d
welcome me. Truly.
I try to be good but sometimes
a person just has to break out and
act like the wild and springy thing
one used to be. It’s impossible not
to remember wild and not want to go back. So
if someday you can’t find me you might
look into that tree or—of course
it’s possible—under it.