What Does Play Look Like?

What does "Play" look like? When someone invites you, "Want to play?" how do you respond? For me, play opens up possibilities, and yet, when my son has tipped over into stress, terror, or overwhelm, I can find myself flooded with a sense of disconnection, fear and shame. Then, I’m closed off to the possibility of play. 

Receiving empathy support and learning about the brain has helped me to live more solidly in congruence with my values: remaining open, curious, and understanding, more consistency when parenting. Yet, even then, I have sensed there was something missing. I have longed for a dis-confirming experience where my heart remains open and present regardless of environmental factors. 

I had a breakthrough years ago, when my empathy buddy invited me to a weekend play workshop in Portland. I felt amazed and thrilled, it was just what I had been longing for! At the time I was filled with gleeful anticipation. The weekend gave me a first-hand visceral experience which helped me gain clarity around how to hold my son's experiences, not only with more ease, but from a heart of love rather than fear. 

At the workshop I sat with 30+ others all gathered together in a big circle. We all wore loose and comfortable clothing as we sat on the floor covered wall to wall with thick, cushiony, blue mats. Our instructor, O. Fred Donaldson invited us to glimpse the world of Original Play* by sharing a framework in which to hang concepts around choices, distinctions and patterns. 

He said, "There is another choice besides resistance and contest behavior. We're looking at choice this weekend - fight, freeze or flee - but we can actually play with events that are designed to kill us." 

As I listened with rapt attention, I found the guidelines so illuminating: no contest, no winning, no losing, no fault, no fairness, no revenge, no tickling. I realized that the kind of play I learned in the world was cultural: games, activities, and sports. 

This kind of play is commonly presented to children, along with teaching them rules to live by: compete to win or you're a loser, find fault/blame, get revenge, exclude people. 

I instantly recognized the style of parenting that had been modeled and adopted by me with my adult children. I now see how it really is possible to hold one's children with unconditional love and acceptance and I want, above all else, to really be clear on what that looks like and feels like. 

At this hands-on workshop I heard about the patterns of children's play: how children use their eyes; how to use my hands, feet, and body; how touch moves up the body; the last thing touched is the head and how hands remain open. We learned how to let our body mirror/imitate the body of the child and to wait for our invitation to play, to be accepted, and to follow the child's lead. 

As I listened to all of this, a renewed sense of clarity dawned within me. I was waking to a new world of play. 

I had new eyes and could "see" so many play opportunities with my son, and I was eager to explore them all! It was clear that Original Play "is not just a human activity to solve a human problem." It's a gift given to all creation and all of life knows the patterns. 

Fred spent 10 years playing with wolves. He played with wild dolphins for five weeks in Australia, and played with deer, elk, bison, black bear, and grizzly bear in Montana. All the animals played with the same patterns. I quote, "Original play is not about having fun. It's not a dance, sport, or extreme sport. It's a gift from creation so that I can love completely, fully, whatever comes to me." 

Wow. That was something I was desperate to experience and understand on a cellular level. I knew experiencing this way of being was key to perceiving my son in a whole new way, with much more consistency, and it felt hauntingly familiar.

I remember as I took in the information, my stomach and jaws clenched tight in resistance to my thought of actively participating. A part of me was quite simply terrified I'd "do it wrong," and I felt an impulse to hide as panic begam to expand in my chest. 

I turned and looked over at my empathy buddy, as our hearts and eyes connected, I felt a gentle warmth cascade over me down into my belly. The tension I was holding released. I experienced a sense of revitalization, openness, and the freedom to engage in the group with exploration and discovery on the visceral level. 

It was fascinating to notice that by having a playmate, that I trust and feel safe with, made all the difference in the world for my nervous system to relax and open up to learning! 

Let's tie this into research on the neurobiology of a secure attachment. 

With the primary caregiver, psycho biological regulation influences the child's maturing limbic system, the brain areas specialized for adapting to a rapidly changing environment. The right hemisphere has deep connections into the limbic and autonomic nervous systems and is dominant for the human stress response. When I visually connected with my empathy buddy, through our left eyes, my stressed right hemisphere was soothed and calmed by hers. 

Warm and resonant attachment relationships facilitate the expansion of our coping capacities. 

This piece of experiential learning was huge for me and it was totally amazing to experience with awareness. In a moment's time, I could reflectively "see" a kaleidoscope effect of interactions with my son, gaining a deeper and more compassionate understanding around what his experience might be like when he is feeling stressed, terrified, and overwhelmed by his environment. My troubled heart expanded with acceptance and love.

Join me again next week, to learn about the power of intentional play, the kind of play that occurs when you step outside all the categories you live in.


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