The Loss of Play

I was blessed enough to grow up near a river. The Smith’s Fork snaked right through my Wyoming hometown, coming within a hundred yards of my own home. From my earliest memories until about sixth grade, my summer routine was the same: wake up, eat breakfast, go play in the river. Repetitive, but certainly not monotonous.

The river was at the mercy of my imagination. One day it was the Amazon; the next, dinosaurs inhabited its shores. Along the river were cottonwoods and a vast network of small willow trees thick enough to provide seclusion from the nearby park, roads, and backyards. Throughout them were crisscrossing channels, some created by deer, some created by me and kids before me. It was a place I could take friends or be alone, often alone. From the minute my parents let me go to the river unaccompanied, the Smith’s Fork became my reliable best friend.

As I aged I outgrew the river. I graduated from playing in the water to riding bikes to driving cars to drinking beer to eating out at restaurants. My imagination waned, and videogames and alcohol became the choice method of altering reality. I thought nothing of this progression until two weeks ago, when I played for the first time in about a decade.

It was a Wednesday morning, raining, and Seward Park was empty. It was my first time in the park, one of Seattle’s too-few remaining stands of old-growth trees. My goal was to get some exercise. A very mature goal indeed.

That’s not what happened, though. My shoes were slipping in the mud, causing me to stumble down hills. I was wet. I was dirty. And I was having a blast. This wasn’t exercise; exercise is painful, tiring, awful. This was play.

For some period of time — maybe a couple hours — I was a boy again. I was running because it was fun, not because magazines tell me it’s fun. I was looking to the top of magnificent trees and thinking how cool it would be to climb one. I wondered what lurked beneath the ferns, and stopped whenever a branch moved to decipher the cause. As the rain dripped on me from branches more than a hundred feet above, I felt connected to the water and appreciated its presence, a sentiment paralleled years ago by Smith’s Fork water wrapping around my 9-year-old knees.

As we age, this feeling becomes rarer. When we play as children, it’s so simple. My recipe for fun was water and imagination. Many attribute our enjoyment as youths to the lack of responsibilities. Yes, it’s easier to be carefree when we don’t have utilities, rent and tuition bills to worry about. But there’s another missing ingredient that many forget, an aspect that was prominent in my childhood and the childhood of many others: playing outside.

It has become acceptable and predictable that people play outdoors when they’re young but stick to indoor pursuits as they age; and with the advent of smartphones and tablets, more and more children are looking to technology rather than nature for stimulation. 

Spending time looking at a screen rather than outside has been proven to have adverse mental and physical effects. Some call it nature deficit disorder, but it can all be traced to our outgrowing of play.

Why is it that adults stop playing? Sure, we ski, bike and surf, but those are activities that are inherently too expensive for many people. Play has become a rare pursuit — especially for the poor and racial minorities who don’t have access to parks, clean rivers, or natural vegetation — that is all too often afforded by sacrificing time outdoors for time in the office.

If the opportunity presents itself, find an excuse to get outside. Wade in a river. Hike or jog, but don’t worry about your speed or destination. Play in the mud. When you do this, the concerns of life melt away, and you feel like a 9-year-old working his way up a river.

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