The rejuvenating power of play

Deep in conversation

I wanted to follow up on a comment to last week’s post. A woman wrote in to thank me for challenging her assumption: “As a friend with kids, I just always assume my children are annoying people who don’t have kids.”

This assumption – that kids annoy adults who don’t have children – immediately made me think of so many of the women I interviewed talking about their own aunts playing with them or describing their love of playing with the children in their lives. I don’t have any evidence of how widespread this assumption is, but I hope today’s post will help dispel the notion that children always annoy those of us who aren’t parents.

The ways we play
Remember the aunt who made clothes for her niece’s frog? By ensuring that the frog had a proper wardrobe, she was honoring her niece’s desire to play and showing her that playtime was valuable enough for her to contribute her own time and talent. I’m pretty sure I never played with frogs when I was little, but one of my mom’s friends (an unmarried, older lady) always brought me clothes she made for my Barbie. I cannot describe how special I (and my Barbie) felt to have these fabulous clothes.

Several of the women I interviewed, especially those with younger nieces and nephews, mentioned the role of play in their lives as one of their favorite parts of aunthood. One friend had a huge smile on her face as she described the simple ways she plays with her toddler nephew, tossing a ball in the backyard, playing fetch with the dog, generally enjoying just running around outside.

Another spoke of the fun she has at her friends’ children’s birthday parties – everything from painting ceramic pieces at a paint party to sitting on the floor at slumber parties painting girls’ toenails. (Moms – wouldn’t you love to have a friend like this who helped entertain your children at slumber parties?)

The make-believe gift
One of my close childhood friends spoke of teaching her niece how to crochet and create other arts and crafts. While her niece has outgrown the world of make-believe play, several of her friends have children still in that stage of play. She said this is one of her favorite parts of getting to know her friends’ children. “I love going on the playground and being absolutely goofy with the kids. They give me an excuse, because if I went to the playground by myself, it would look odd. I realized I had forgotten how to have creative play time, like ‘I’m a princess!’ I didn’t know I had lost that skill until some of my friends’ children wanted me to play make-believe. It took me a long time to get back into it. I guess without these children in my life, I wouldn’t have kept that childhood creativity going.”

She’s right. There’s a playground world that opens up to adults only through children. As adults, we don’t generally remember how to play make believe unless there are children asking us to join them. But isn’t make believe exactly where we learned to dream and picture our future selves? Not only does playing in this manner reignite our own creativity, but it can also help us learn how to re-imagine our own dreams and make them come true.

Forging childhood bonds that last into adulthood
When my own nephews were little, we played Thomas the Train and Star Wars and had countless battles with action figures. I got to know their personalities better through the way they played make believe. I learned their sensitivities, how they thought, and what they loved most, and in return, they knew they could always count on me to sit down on the floor and play in their world.

Now that my nephews are teenagers, the type of play has transitioned. My older nephew is a talented musician, and he’s just about the only person who can get me to dust off my violin to play. My younger nephew is fast becoming a talented fisherman, and he has tried to teach me how to fish with a cast net (He was very sweet about the one teeny little shrimp I caught). Their willingness to invite me to join in their interests comes from a habit forged from our bond of playing when they were small.

That strong childhood bond is one of the most important aspects of aunthood to many of the good aunts I interviewed. And it’s not the only reason we aunts love to play.

Giving parents a break
Playing not only flexes our imagination and makes us feel young but also makes us feel useful. We know parents are exhausted, and so when we interact with nieces and nephews or our friends’ children, we are offering our gift of time to their parents.

We play Monopoly countless times, knowing that it gives the parents a break from this oh-so-fun and will-it-never-end game. We have tea parties so mom can have a real cup of tea. We play Barbies on the floor or stage full-scale backyard battles with army men so that a parent can do a load of laundry or simply sit still on the couch for a few moments. We go to playgrounds. We go to lands of make believe. And we do all of this because we love these children, and because we love their parents.

How do you play?
Do you have a favorite way of playing that you would have otherwise forgotten without the children in your life? Do you have a fond memory of an aunt who took time to play when you were little? Please feel free to share by posting a reply below.

2 thoughts on “The rejuvenating power of play

  1. My aunt has been here visiting and watching her play cards with my daughter, not only brought joy to her and my daughter, it allowed me to step back and be a spectator and see the kind, mature girl my daughter has become right under my nose. It was a unique and wonderful opportunity for me as a mom! – and she did not seem to annoy my aunt! 🙂

    • Wendy — thanks so much for sharing this! Sounds like a wonderful opportunity to see your aunt and daughter playing and learn something new (and praiseworthy) about your daughter.

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