Recovering Imagination and Play

Garden Meditation - Oil on Canvas - Jean Forsberg

"It is paradoxical that many educators and parents still differentiate between a time for learning and a time for play without seeing the vital connection between them."

- Leo F. Buscaglia

I find it perplexing that, as Americans, we fashion ourselves to be a free people, but when it comes to play, we are often inhibited and cautious, rather than free-spirited and spontaneous. But as Patti Digh, author if Life as a Verb, reminds us, we can reclaim play as part of our birthright by choosing to believe that: “Play is not a foolish waste of time. Play is not a mindless diversion from work. [Instead] play is how we discover ourselves, igniting our creativity and imagination; play is how we come alive.”

Gauging Your Willingness to Play

Imagine yourself sitting quietly on a commuter train when the person across from you stands, turns on his boom box full tilt; and then invites you and everyone else on the train to a dance party. This is not a made-up scenario. It actually happened. Click the play button below to watch the video and see the outcome.

If you had been on that train, would you have remained seated or would you have risen to the occasion and busted some moves… or, perhaps, something in between? Your response to this question, whatever it might be, provides a gateway for you to reflect on your appetite for spontaneous play.

Recovering Play

There is arguably no better way to awaken to ourselves and to life than through free-spirited play. Though we were each born knowing, instinctively, how to play, nowadays, exuberant unsupervised play is often seen as inappropriate.

Rather than children spending lots of time playing outside, as was the norm in earlier times, kids today seldom spend even an hour a day in the out-of-doors. Upshot: In our increasingly indoor-centered lives, we’ve become cut off from free-spirited, spontaneous play. But this need not be. What is required, in the view of outdoor educator, Ken Finch, is simple: “Patches of wildness where kids can come and go as they please without adult supervision. It might be a single hemlock tree with low branches that forms a natural fort or a backyard patch of rough ground that is not manicured or protected, but is simply there—right in the neighborhood—e.g., a place stockpiled with branches, sticks, logs, shovels, rocks, sand, watering cans, scraps of lumber, nails, hammers, you-name-it. In short, a place for kids to dig and build, to get bumped and scraped, wet and cold, muddy and bitten.” It is in such environments that kids become free, fully alive, fully themselves.

Though genuine play can take many forms, it is never programmed. So how is it for you: When was the last time you played outside? This morning? Yesterday? Not sure? What if you were to go outside right now? What would you do? How could you play? It might be that these questions leave you feeling disinterested or confused, but this doesn’t matter. What does matter—if awakening is our goal, is getting off our butts and going outside. You don’t need a plan. You just need to trust that you know how to play because you do! We all do… we have just forgotten. If you doubt this, just remind yourself that to play is to liberate yourself from the dos and don’ts of your mind; and, in so doing, to become fully and ecstatically alive.

Imagination as a Field of Play

As a novice scientist, conducting research in the Amazon Basin in the early 1980s, I was taken to a huge swath of land where bulldozers had scraped away the virgin rainforest, leaving no trace of plant life. A week later I returned to that same spot, curious to discover if any plants had been able to colonize. To my delight, I did find some tiny seedlings, here and there, and I marked each one with a toothpick tag; but the following week, when I returned to check on those delicate seedlings, they had all died.

When I shared this information with an older, more experienced, scientist, she challenged me to imagine what it would be like to be a tiny seedling attempting to survive and grow in a hot barren landscape. Intrigued by her suggestion, I imagined myself as a seedling, feeling the hot sun sucking the moisture out of my tiny leaves. Then, longing for relief, I visualized a heavy rain falling.

But with my new seedling eyes, the raindrops that came crashing down created tiny craters in the soil exposing my fragile roots to the scalding sun. It was then that it occurred to me that, in addition to nurturing seedlings, rain, when heavy, might kill them. With some field tests I quickly gained support for this hypothesis.

Though mine was a rather elementary discovery, I would not have stumbled upon it had I not taken time to imagine how tiny plant seedlings might experience the world. In so doing, I also came to experience a measure of empathy for the plant world.

In this spirit of imagination and play, I challenge you to bring to mind something that triggers your curiosity. It could be as simple as “what is life like for a cat?” Or “what is the experience of a snowflake?” Or “what would my life have been like if I had lived in ancient Egypt?” Then, use your fecund imagination to playfully inhabit the world of a cat or a snowflake, or an ancient Egyptian) and see what emerges!  

Play and Freedom: Jumpology

When was the last time you jumped just for the fun of it… for the play of it? Have you ever considered that that the way you jump could reveal something about who you are? This is what photographer, Phillipe Halsman, came to believe after spending years photographing people in the act of jumping. Halsman explained it this way: “When you ask a person to jump, his/her attention is mostly directed toward the act of jumping and the mask falls so that the real person appears.” Indeed, it seems that the truth of who we are is more readily revealed through our bodies in unscripted moments, rather than through programmed activities orchestrated in our heads.

So how about it? Are you willing to be playful right now? If so, give a friend your phone and ask him/her to do a two-minute photo shoot of you jumping. Don’t think about or plan your jumps. Just start jumping… freely… spontaneously… ridiculously... Then, as you look at your photos, ask yourself: What might my ways of jumping reveal about my soul, my spirit, my essence… my destiny?

Exercise: Just Imagine

Our imagination is akin to a muscle: The more we use it, the more alive, awake, creative and empowered we become. All that’s required is a willingness to imagine! This can be challenging, especially if we tend to shy away from imagining things that are radical, audacious, liberating—i.e., things with the power to touch, move and inspire ourselves and others.

As a playful way of stretching your imagination muscle, listen to John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s classic song, Imagine, where they summon the audacity to imagine a world at peace… grounded in love.

After listening to the lyrics, add five of your own lines to this song. Be daring.  Be playful. Be brave. Be authentic. Be outrageous. You will know that you are using your imagination to its fullest when your lines create an enlivening, energetic vibration within your whole body…

1 - IMAGINE… _________________________
2 - IMAGINE… _________________________
3 - IMAGINE… _________________________
4 - IMAGINE… _________________________
5 - IMAGINE… _________________________

"If you fall in love with the imagination, you understand that it is a free spirit. It will go anywhere, and it can do anything."

- Alice Walker

"The biggest challenge I came across as I engaged with this stepping stone was that my inner voice wanted to keep me tame..."

- Jamie Quail, Stepping Stone 14 Guide

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