The Power of Play

If you’re like most American adults, you’re life feels pretty busy. We’re all looking for tips and tricks to be more efficient and productive. How can we manage to eat well, exercise, crush it at work, be an awesome parent, and call our mom every Sunday? What if I told you that your best, first step is to play more?

We tend to give up on play as we get older, and that’s really too bad, because it brings so many positive things to our life. Play is proven to make us happier, healthier, and improve our relationships. So, why do so many of us hit the age of 30 and just decided to hang it up? The reasons I hear most often are: “I don’t have time” and “I’ll hurt myself doing that stuff”. That’s fair enough. I’ll just offer my own experience and tell you why I think neither of those hold water.

Over the past year, I’ve spent a lot of time skateboarding. This is something that I was obsessed with in the 5th grade, but hadn’t done in over 20 years. But, when my sons said that they wanted to try out the local skatepark, I knew that I had to give it a try. At first, none of us really knew what we were doing. We just sort of rolled around and tried not to kill ourselves or someone around us. Over time though, it started to slowly come back. I worked my way through some basic moves and got the the point where is was more and more fun. There have been lots of bumps, bruises, and muscle pulls along the way, but a return to skating has provided amazing rewards. Here are the top four:

It brings me closer to my kids. Our trips to the skatepark provide real quality time with my sons. No phones, no chores, no homework, just fun for fun’s sake. We also have the chance to bond over learning something new together. Our rides home from skating remind me of the bus rides pack from the drop zone at Ft. Bragg, when everybody compares stories of the night’s parachute jump. These are days that I hope we’ll all remember fondly in 20 years.

It feeds the growth mindset. Learning new skills is good for your brain. It slows down aging and makes you sharper all around. Too many adults buy into the whole “old dog, new trick” fallacy. We are all capable of picking up new sports, hobbies, and even technical skills throughout our life. Trying to land a kick-flip at 37 isn’t impossible by any stretch, you just have to approach it with a kid’s mind. Skating has reminded how great it feels to be young and full possibilities.

It is great exercise. Training at the gym can feel like work and the fun can get sucked out of it pretty quickly if you’re not careful.  The truth is, exercise doesn’t have to be hard or suck to be effective.  Skateboarding, especially in the Tampa summers is a great aerobic workout and leaves me drenched in sweat every time. I’ve skipped several workouts on account of skating fatigue and I don’t feel bad about it.

Flow. Probably the most important benefit of this kind of play is the ever-elusive state of flow. Flow is a state of focused and intense concentration in an activity that is both enjoyable and challenging. We can best achieve flow when our skills closely match the difficulty, or danger, of the situation.  It works great in the case of skateboarding, but it required some pain and effort to get there. When I first got back into it, I was nervous all the time. My skills were pathetic and I was terrified of falling on the concrete and busting my skull. In the first couple of months, I landed on my left hip so many times that I developed a huge and painful contusion on a contusion.  Frankly, I felt old and almost walked away completely. The fear was real. But I stuck with it and have gotten to the point where the risk of falling and hurting myself (which still happens) actually enhances the experience and makes it easier to me to get into a state of flow. I have to concentrate on what I’m doing and stay completely present and engaged in the task at hand, which is hard for me to do in everyday life. Within a few minutes of being at the skatepark, the bills, work, and all the usual stressors of life start to fade into the background.

Not ready for the half-pipe? No problem. Just go outside and have some fun. When is that last time that you broke out your baseball glove or a frisbee? How about a cannonball contest? The activity matters far less than the intention. If you haven’t played in a while, please give it a try. You’re not too old, I promise.

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