Finding Ourselves Through Play

The book that had the most impact on my thinking in 2009, was:  Play:  How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul, by Stuart Brown and Christopher Vaughan.

It inspired me to chat with Nobel Laureates, last June, at a gathering in Sweden, about their play patterns as children.   When these men talked about their work in the lab today and their childhood play patterns, it was the same conversation.   They played passionately as children and the emergent questions and interests they had as children were still central in their work, albeit more evolved.

More recently, I started carrying a Flip Video recorder with me and interviewing friends and people I meet here and there.  One friend, Mike, talked about his stamp collection — the excitement of opening the bag of envelope corners with colorful stamps affixed, the thrill of tracking on a map where each stamp was from and learning a little about each country, and the sense of possibility and curiosity about a larger world with so many different cultures.  Mike went on to major in international relations and does global policy work today.

Matt Ruff was clear from the age of five that he wanted to be a novelist.  He read voraciously, invented imaginary worlds and has confidently and successfully pursued these dreams as an adult.

Over the holidays, sitting with my mom and little sister, I began asking them what they remembered about my childhood play patterns.  “You were into everything,” my mom recalled, “You had science experiments going in the basement with mice, you baked and sold cookies door to door, you were constantly crafting and making things, and you started hosting dinner parties at the age of twelve.”    My sister remembered the science fair projects, chess club, and all the making and building projects.

I remembered being positively obsessed with the notion of infinity and with Ann Cutler’s, Instant Math, and number patterns.  My dad was a willing co-conspirator in any building project — one of the most memorable: building an incubator to hatch chicks.  I had rock, stamp, and coin collections. I loved to bake and cook from a young age, and then found ways to sell my wares in the neighborhood — my mom always made me reimburse her for cost of goods.

Working with the kids next door, we produced circus performances.  I was involved in every aspect of production, program development, marketing, logistics, and pricing, for both the entry fee and goods sold.  We also organized summer crafting programs for young kids in the neighborhood.  I loved co-creating these businesses — with neighbor kids I’m still very friendly with today (no, not through or because of FaceBook).

By age eleven, I wanted to learn how to bake bread and didn’t know anyone who could teach me.  Trial and error and fifty loaves later, I could do it blindfolded and could easily modify a recipe successfully.  If I’d done this in school, I’d have gotten a failing grade after the first few loaves.  Thanks to my parents, I could try as often as I wanted and analyze and question what was going wrong and right each time.

I read voraciously, both fiction and non-fiction, and visited the library frequently.  As a child, I created books.  As a teenager, I wrote both prose and poetry and was the editor of my high school literary magazine.

I fearlessly rode my bicycle all over the northern Chicago suburbs — seriously, everywhere.  My bicycle was my freedom.  I sang with friends in high school and later in college.

I loved to travel and between baby-sitting and a waitress job that paid fifty cents an hour plus tips, I traveled all over the U.S. and to Panama, French Canada, and Europe, as a young teenager — on my own or with friends.  I loved meeting weavers in rural Holland, drinking my first cappuccino at the age of fifteen in Panama City, and picking blueberries just outside of Chicoutimi, Quebec, Canada.  People fascinated me – I wanted to understand everything about creativity, intelligence, learning, and communication.  I still do.

All of these themes are active today, both in my work and in my play.  I taught (K-6, university) and worked as a children’s librarian the first decade of my career, spent the next two decades in high tech, where I’m still very active, and this last year, helped co-found a fresh sauces and puddings company, Abby’s Table.  I serve on many Advisory Boards, both for profit and not for profit, covering a range of areas from technology to health to education to the environment.

How are your play patterns alive today, in what you do as an adult?  Once you start writing, even a paragraph or two, about your childhood play patterns, you’ll see the power of play.

I hope you’ll take a few minutes to comment on your childhood play patterns here.  What couldn’t you wait to do when you got home from school or on a Saturday? Does your work and play today share themes from your childhood play?  I hope this new decade is a decade where play is celebrated and acknowledged as the key to passion, joy and a productive and fulfilling life.

Published by Linda Stone

I coined the phrases continuous partial attention, email apnea, and screen apnea. I write about attention and our relationship to technology.

10 thoughts on “Finding Ourselves Through Play

  1. Thanks for asking Linda. A childhood pattern for me was inventing imaginary sporting events, such as a football game staged in my front yard. I would play all the roles (e.g., announcer, cheering fans, quarterback, receiver, and interviewer). I had several imaginary teams in an imaginary league that played an imaginary season. I kept a bevy of statistics for these imaginary personas whether football, basketball, or baseball. I would even play the role of an interviewer who would simultaneously interview me as one of these personas (my interviews were usually done walking to and from school).

  2. I made up lots of stories as a child and would lead my little sister and cousins in acting them out. This included stories about being orphans and being a circus family (I was inspired by all that Evil Kneival 70s pop culture).

    I wrote my first play for them to act in when I was about 8 and then a short film script in which a couple cheated on each other with another couple but it was all hidden.

    I spent a lot of time in the basement with a typeriter and that dark paper stuff that let you make one copy at a time. I made a magazine with my cousins and we always sold all this stuff to the adults.

    I remember renting handheld radios to them for a nickel on Friday nights.

    I played a lot of sports around school but we lived far from school and I wasn’t very socially savvy so most of my time was with my imagination and family friends and the few kids on our block. We also hiked on the Bruce Trail with walkie talkies and “rations” and went to the “bear” cave. I threaded everything with stories about the exciting adventures we we really having (in my kind). I memorized and performed
    Judith Viorst’s kids book Alexander and the
    Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day. My first monologue I guess. I read a lot. My sister and I made up commercials, used my mum’s makeup as clown make up and turned giant boxes into rocketships. We sat at the Friday Night Shabbat table and talked about how business worked and told stories and laughed. I became a comic and we did dishes.

    Then I hit adolesence and almost all of this
    ended, except for the reading and the dinner table stories. I didn’t do stand up till law school and I didn’t write another play until I was 34.

    Business and imagination got separated and pratocalness and the attempt to be a proper girl got in the way. My mind an energy became a consumer of stories an film rather than a maker when I was not playing sports.

    Those early years with my imagination were the greatest moments of my life. It’s a journey to return. Picasso said it took him a lifetime to learn to draw like a 5 year old. I am journeying back as best I can. My sense of what’s possible absolutely came from that early play and limitlessness.

  3. I’m pretty sure I sold a typewritten newspaper door to door one summer … plus I organized a 4th of July parade and any number of elaborately staged kid battles. I was one of the few girls in school (if not the only girl) who played D&D. I liked to bake and my folks gave me free range in the kitchen, as long as I cleaned up after myself.

    Mostly I read — more than 20 books a week most weeks, the most the library would let me check out — and played soccer, was in the Girl Scouts, and babysat as much as I could to get money to buy clothes … then I started sewing around age 12 and that turned into an obsession!

  4. Just got an email from my sister who said: “I can still smell your bread baking and I vividly recall the mice and you riding your bike to the Sweet Shop :)”

    Most of us can still find aspects of our essential selves in our childhood play patterns…

  5. The following is from George Dyson, author, kayak builder/designer, intellectual, father, and friend. It’s a great read.


    My play patterns were/are pretty obvious: a mix of exploring the woods, streams, and swamps of New Jersey, catching the reptiles that inhabited them, and taking apart any kind of machinery, especially electrical/electronic that could be found. Climbing trees, and building towers lashed together from bamboo. And hoping for snow, when any kid could build anything they wanted.

    Everyone starts out playful. I have interviewed a number of people who made important scientific or technological innovations, and, no surprise, they *remained* playful. Here is nuclear physicist, bomb-designer, Project Orion leader, and green energy pioneer Theodore B. Taylor (1925-2004):

    “I was attracted to explosions from the very beginning. I was given a chemistry set when I was seven or eight and that rapidly turned into a laboratory for making explosives, with one restriction set down by my mother: never, never under any circumstances was I allowed to make nitroglycerine. So I didn’t. Just picric acid and nitrogen iodide and so on. I was fascinated by explosions. I still am. I love to watch them and be responsible for them and set them off. Without any attraction to the damage. It’s the act of the exploding, putting a little sack full of potassium chlorate and sulfur on a streetcar track in Mexico City. And no one got hurt… I wanted to go to extremes. Even one cherry bomb under a fifty-gallon drum, it goes up about fifteen feet.” Ted, who showed no particular interest in physics and was a lackluster student, learned about elastic scattering, chain reactions, and reflected shock waves by playing billiards after school (he grew up in Mexico City where classes were dismissed at one in the afternoon). “There were other places, not so close to the school, where the billiard balls were really spherical and the tables were very heavy and the balls would bounce very nicely. We found that there were various degrees of accuracy with which you could call a shot depending on how heavy and flat and rigid the table was.”

    Ted’s last words to me: “I am searching for the truth as long as I can.”


  6. Play:

    When I was a kid about 9 or 10, during the war years of the 40’s, I remember playing “Big Girls” with my friends. Our stories involved elaborate story lines about being grown up. These stories played out our fantasies about what it meant to be older, and have a very different kind of life, than the life we led on the streets of the Bronx, NY.

    Our stories were about being misunderstood by our parents, having big jobs and getting paid lots of money, for, essentially being very beautiful. We played out our dreams and fantasies about the life to come; a life we were so impatient to realize.

    We were children of working class parents. Our parents worked in factories, the post office or offices. Mother’s stayed home, except for mine, who worked in a garment center factory, with my father and uncle.

    We all went to the movies Saturday mornings, to see cartoons, the news report of the war, and the wonderful black and white moving pictures with handsome men and gorgeous women. Those plot lines fueled our games of pretend.

    For a brief while, the streets of our neighborhood were transformed into the palaces we were sure we would live in when we were older.

  7. I just woke up from a life long nightmare of “failing tests in college” / common not debilitating
    I just read your piece on play and learn / good work. / timing was perfect

  8. The following comes from Carol Sperry, a retired educator and professor of education (and also an inspiration to many, including me):

    My memories of playing seem to be divided into two venues: the Brooklyn tenement and neighborhood where I was born and raised, and the fields and hills of Bucks County, Pa., where I spent most of my early summers with my aunt and uncle.

    Brooklyn memories have a dark and confined air about them, although I spent many a happy day hanging out on my block with my friends, or walking two blocks to the projects to hang out some more. We played stoop ball, tag, marbles, checkers, and jacks, so knuckles were usually grazed and scabby. As I got older, I found great solace in the library, about fifteen blocks away, where I vowed, like many a child before me, I’m sure, to read every book, preferably in alphabetical order. As things got harder to handle in my home, I spent as much time as I could at the library, which I remember as dimly lit and cozy with the smell of polished wood and musty paper. It may sound strange but it left a taste in my mouth that I can conjure today. An alternative was to sit on my apartment’s fire escape with the window closed behind me, providing me with my own small private world as I looked down, from the fourth floor, on backyards and criss-crossing clothes lines. I read, daydreamed, and imagined myself into many adventures where I was usually the main attraction. When we took the bus to Prospect Park, I took a sketch book with me. I still have a picture of a gnarled and wondrous tree, which I worked so hard to “get right.” In the Brooklyn venue of my play memories, my mother was always there to tell me how wrong I did things and how she could fix it, whether it was drawing, sewing, cooking or knitting.

    Then there was Bucks County, with my aunt and uncle. Bright, sunny, free, and where I could do no wrong. I propelled my bicycle up and down the rock-strewn dirt paths of Upper Black Eddy, pedaling like a wild child, so in love with speed and freedom. I didn’t wear a helmet. Who did in those days. I must have fallen many times but I don’t remember that. I would ride alone or with my friends, Tootie and Reggie, often to Ringing Rocks. This was a surreal landscape of huge dark boulders that rang with different tones as you skimmed smaller rocks off their sides. Or we’d visit the widow who lived up the road, through the covered bridge. We once helped catch her black pig who had escaped his pen and was running around like crazy, maybe enjoying his pig freedom. This excitement was paralleled during rides with my uncle, careening up and down roads, he in the driver’s seat laughing and me in the rumble seat, holding on for dear life but never feeling more alive. This is the same uncle who pulled me up the banks of the road so we could pick wild dandelion, or in another mood, swipe a bit of some farmer’s corn. Uncle George and I planted flower beds together and painted the surrounding rock borders in all different colors. We lay on the grass at night, looking up, so he could teach me about the stars. I “worked” some days in his Dairy Queen franchise by the side of the road. It was all play to me since I was often left alone (starting at age 12) to “hold down the fort.” I was trusted and earned that trust, learned so many skills and made mistakes, but that was expected, and overlooked, as long as I learned something from it.

  9. What strikes me about these stories is that the play patterns – making up imaginary worlds, putting on performances, making crafts, collecting stamps, exploring the outside – have very little to do with highly structured, competitive activities described as “games” these days. It reminds me of a quote from Catherine Hrdlick, who’s the founder of “come out and play” street game festival – I’m not a gamer, I love to play”.

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