Engaging in organic play is not only crucial for toddlers but essential for teens and adults to maintain their mental and physical wellbeing.
I was one of those outgoing children who knew no boundaries. Thankfully I had parents who taught me to recognize when they were needed but also allowed me to explore and push those boundaries, often discovering for myself when it was enough. I don’t think I really had a sense that my behavior might be something to be embarrassed about until late in grade school or early middle school.
For example, at when I was two years old, my mom took me to a Mother’s Day brunch at our church. The entertainment was a ventriloquist who brought the kids up to entertain them with his sidekick. Evidently, I was enthralled. I never took my eyes of the doll and my face lit up with the joy of finding this new friend. When the show was over, I leaned over and kissed the doll. Of course, that was precious coming from a blond, ringlet-donned toddler, but that impulsivity has carried over into my adult life as well. Sometimes, not too cute.
I was the kid who was always down for a new adventure and to try a new activity. I can’t count the number of sports I jumped into before the age of 15. My mom had another great story of the time I came home from school and asked if she could make jerseys for everyone on the baseball team that I had put together. This was nothing official, just something that had come together on the playground. Evidently, there was a big game the following day and I just had to have our team, The Wildcats, ready to go. My mom was amazing and actually put at least a shirt together for me, and I happily dashed off to school the following day, ready for the big game.
When I got home from school my mom was anxiously waiting to hear how the game went. She had a special snack ready for me and sat down eagerly awaiting the play-by-play.
“How’d the game go?”, she asked.
“We won!’, I replied with a lot of excitement.
“What was the score?”
“3 to what?” My mother was obviously confused.
After a bit more questioning it came out that there was, in fact, just one team. A group of kids who had no care of how baseball was supposed to be played, but rather played a game among ourselves. One team, many kids, three runs scored.
That was the approach to fun and play that shaped the foundation of my life. That was fun. No set rules. No “not supposed to” in design. Just ideas being set forth in motion and experienced with utter job.
Over the years the fun activities began to change to not-so-fun. What started out as something that brought me joy and engaged my playful nature was often shifted to be a chore. The spontaneous ideas and games that fueled me on the playground and around my neighborhood began to shift to having rules attached. And more, shame delved out when you didn’t adhere to those rules, or worse, engaged in behavior that was seen as “weird”.
Things did not bode well for me as weird was one of my key characteristics.
Along with my organic play shifting, what I was experiencing in organized sport, specifically gymnastics, was changing too. By the time I was 12, I had been competing for a few years. During that time was the 1984 Olympics and I was convinced that I could be the next Mary Lou Retton, and especially connected to her powerhouse, bulldog style, as the gracefulness that many other gymnasts possess was just not in me.
My enthusiasm was there. My drive was there. I practiced at home most of my time on the equipment my parents had set up for me – a bar in the backyard, a floor beam, some foam to tumble on. I would spend hours in our playroom choreographing epic floor routines that I would implement as soon as I moved into the Optionals level. I found play in gymnastics. The hours I spent practicing were for me and my dreams – it was not work. And to be honest, to this day I will still bust out an old routine or piece of tumbling because it still brings me joy.
But alas, my enthusiasm for the sport wasn’t enough to keep me in it and achieve my goal.
When I was 12, I was told I wasn't good enough at the activities to continue. The story I heard was that it was not worth the effort to help me get better. That I would do better at a lower weight. That I was too big, too old. When I asked for help on a new skill, I was passed over for the younger, more promising girls. My heart broke from the lack of support from my coaches. The fact that they were not willing to engage with me sucked the joy out of me. I cried to my parents (something that didn’t happen often). They tried to intervene and talk with the coaches. Things never changed. My heart yearned for the play that was gymnastics, but my spirit was broken. I left the sport.
That began the journey of trying to find my play fit. No longer could I gather a group of random kids and make up a game to run around with. None of the other sports I tried really fit the way gymnastics had. The closest option was cheerleading in high school (I should mention that our State did not have high school gymnastics as a sport option). I made the squad, and I was good. But the social connections weren’t there. While I was accepted, I was a bit too weird to be embraced. I stuck with that until, once again, my heart was too heavy to reclaim the play and joy, and I went off searching again for something else.
My life even to this point in my late 40s has been a journey of returning to play.
When I look back on my life, I've realized that it's been rooted in movement and play. When I was in first grade, I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. "A PE teacher", I naturally replied. Why? Because that was the class where I was allowed to move and play. I could showcase my love for being active and there wasn't anything I didn't love in that class. The fact that I did indeed become a PE teacher is no surprise. And I had fun in those classes – sometimes more than my students did.
There are so many experiences of being disconnected from play that I've had over the years that have shifted my view of what I am and am not allowed to do, and also who I’m allowed to be. What was once embraced as fun and engaging, transitioned to weird and repelling. Sometimes I still don’t fully understand the reactions that I get to spontaneously giving into fun.
I've seen it happen in countless other kids over the past 20 years who I've worked with at the high school as well. The sadness that comes over all of us when we're told that our favorite way to play is no longer an option for us. For others, yes - they fit the requirements, but we don't. With that sadness bring confusion, shame, and self-doubt which just adds to the downward spiral.
And the shame that we feel from simply trying to be ourselves often pulls us inward and we begin to collect a variety of masks to wear in any given situation. To fit in, to belong, is so vital for all of us. However, I’ve found that the more you’re forced to push down that authentic self, the more depression and anxiety you feel.
In my case, eventually, I found myself stuck in a hole, listening to the sounds of others' gleeful play, and desperately wanting to join but having no idea how to get out. And I'm getting more and more people down in this hole with me, and many of them are teens. Teens who either never were involved in organized sports, or those who were pushed out in some way. Also, teens who were never allowed to engage in organic play without constant supervision. To be invited to a one-team baseball game, or the spontaneous development play with the other kids on the playground. “We don’t know them.”, they were told. “I don’t want you to get in a fight or get hurt.” And so they’ve sat on the sidelines watching, just waiting for permission to play.
There are two issues here.
When we're stuck in the hole of sadness and depression, it's not like it's silent. Often, we hear the sounds of life going on around us and we desperately want to join in, but just can't seem to move from where we are. We’ve been told we’re not wanted or not allowed for so long, that it has become our truth. Our own self-worth and fear of being rejected again won’t allow us to even try.
The path out is unclear or difficult, so instead of trying we just stay still. Our cries for help and belonging can take for externally in eating disorders, cutting, high-risk behavior, drug and alcohol abuse, gut issues, and other physical pain. Basically, feeding the need for that dopamine hit in any way that we can to make us feel something like we did before. Or sometimes, just something besides the crushing pain – even numbing to feel nothing at all.
What we know now is that the simple act of moving is what will bring us back to play.
We have to take the first step. This can be literal physical moving or a virtual step of asking for help. Both truly are needed, but one or the other is fine to get going.
For teens, both the physical act of moving and asking for help can be a huge hurdle to pass. We have to remember that our teens are still going through massive development periods, and while they may physically look like adults, their brains don’t process emotion like adults.
In fact, during the teen years, the reaction to emotion can often reflect that more of a toddler than someone about the officially hit adulthood. Those teens with neurodivergent conditions (ADHD, ASD, SPD, etc.) might even have more difficulty understanding how to step out. This is when parents and adult mentors can really help. I add adult mentors (a coach, teacher, youth leader, counselor) because many times our teens have issues that they can just not discuss with their parents. It has nothing to do with their love and trust in you, but more that they need to process it without that emotion and attachment that they have with you.
Our teens need to play and often need that invitation to join in the fun again. When they are able to accept that invitation and have the courage to rejoin the group, then both physical and mental healing can begin. Science has shown that the process of physically moving our bodies connects to our mental health and encourages the healing that needs to occur there as well.
Getting the physical movement started can be hard. If you or your teen aren’t into gyms and organized exercise classes or sports, then sometimes a simple walk in nature can be an entry point. Often teens don’t want to do this with you but continue extending the invitation – don’t force. Or see if your teen has a friend who would come over and get them outside. I know when I was a teen and struggling, simply going back to the playground, either by myself or with a friend, was incredibly healing and recentering for me. Simply moving my body into a different space was enough to start thinking about what adventure might be next for me.
Even once you start physically moving again, there is still work to be done. Movement brings fuel to the fire to keep the healing going and help us with forward progress. If we can keep that going - if we can eliminate the shame and self-doubt through therapy or other mental health support (groups, journaling, meditation, a good friend, a coach) then our confidence and our teens’ will grow, and we can return to play. Which is all most of us truly want. Even as adults, we just want to be invited to play and join in on the fun.
And so, I'm inviting you to play.
Look around and see who is in the hole with you. Grab their hands and then look up - I've sent a rope down and you can climb out. I will get in the hole with you and lend a hand if needed, but I'd love for us all to take that first actual step to move and ignite the healing. And then I just want to play. I'll even let you pick the game. 😁