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TWENTY SOMETHING: The hidden power of play: how to be young at heart

By CHRISTINA CAPECCHI
09/03/2021 | Comments

Every fall the push to do more intensifies. Sharpen your pencil and dig in.

Produce more, study more, socialize more, exercise more, volunteer more. The calendar becomes the battlefield, its squares squeezed ever tighter. If summer is for vacation, fall is for achievement.

But we are forgetting something. The very thing we consider the opposite of productivity – play — is, in fact, an accelerator of it. And more importantly, it is central in the Christian path to wellness.

I was reminded of this when I read about Reform, a Catholic wellness practice based in Islip, N.Y. with online programming. Their skilled team includes nutritionists, a priest and a doctor. And in their wisdom, they declared play one of the nine pillars of wellness, right alongside sleep, movement, community and faith.

No pillar is more important than the other, and each one enhances the other — movement helps with a good night’s sleep, a good night’s sleep allows for greater community involvement and so on.

Play is the most overlooked pillar, dismissed as a matter reserved for kids — something you graduate from around the time you abandon stuffed animals and mac and cheese.

“But if we take life seriously all the time,” the Reform team writes on its blog, “we miss what God calls us to be: childlike. As his children, we were all designed for play — no matter our age.”

What a profound statement! As God’s children, we are designed for play. At 7 or 70.

The blog post goes on to cite the many benefits of play: it encourages both movement and sleep, it nourishes our bodies, it stimulates personal growth and reduces stress. It also strengthens our relationships, bonding us to others and enabling us get to know them on a new level.

A powerful spiritual benefit of play is the way it reconnects us with ourselves, the post notes. “It is easy to get bogged down by the worries and expectations of the world — and lose our true selves in the process. When we play, we remember that we are first and foremost beloved children of God. We are human beings, not human doings. Play helps us remember what truly makes our spirits come alive and the unique gifts God has given us.”

Play keeps us young at heart, a fact my mom ably demonstrates at 65. She is not the grandma parked on the bench. She’s the one who hula hoops. She goes down slides with her grandkids and encourages them to play in the rain, pulling out her own rain boots to jump in puddles. 

She is inspired by her faith. Her mantra comes from St. Irenaeus: “The glory of God is man fully alive.”

For my mom, play unlocks her creativity. “It takes me out of my world,” she said.

Indeed, play is the brain’s favorite way of learning, and to ditch it at adulthood is to dramatically limit your intellectual growth. 

My friend Stephanie enrolled in a Reform program to help process the death of her 18-month-old. Learning to embrace play has been a surprising step forward in her long journey with grief.

This summer Steph played with her kids — running through the splash pad with them, baking, going on one-on-one dates. She also pledged to take up a hobby of her own. Creative engagement can be a playful outlet, so Steph decided to learn how to knit. She hopes the clacking needles soothe her heart.

As I write, a thunderstorm is rustling through, dimming the streets. It shifts me into a state observing. I can step away from the to-do list. I don’t have to outrun the clock. I can simply let autumn unfold. And if I find a good leaf pile, I will jump.


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