The Power of Play

Playful moments keep us young and remind us of wonder.
To laugh is to live fully in playful appreciation of life.

I became a teacher before I became a mom. I can split my professional experience in education as: (1) before children section and (2) after children section. When I had children, my priorities shifted, not only with my family, but also with my career. I prepared extensively to become a mom. My husband and I read plenty of books and articles on parenting best practices. We attended classes, talked to friends and family, purchased all kinds of items to assist with this transition. We went to no ends to be the best parents once our family grew. Of course, none of this prepared us for how our lives would change. Although we didn’t know exactly how it would change, nevertheless, we knew it would change and did our best to prepare. 

I did nothing to prepare for the change that would happen to me as an educator. 

I did not realize that everything I did as an educator would change as well. The fact that I was now a parent meant that I was different. Everything, every single area of my life would change; and, that included my role as an educator. From grading to assessing, to discipling, to supporting, to connecting with parents and colleagues, all of these practices would look different due to my shift in perspective.

But the change which had the most impact on me was the addition of play and laughter to all areas of my life. Again, not what I anticipated. Play makes us vulnerable. To allow ourselves to laugh and be present enough to find the humor in so many situations, not only pushes us to connect authentically with others, but allows our hearts to expand. “There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor,” wrote Charles Dickens. And how right he was. The honest laughter of children always delights the adults who are lucky enough to witness it. I watched my own parents light up with wonder as they played on the floor with my children. The laughter they heard infected all of us. Becoming a parent increased my capacity to laugh, to find joy in the smallest wonders, to love in a way I could not have predicted. 

Laughter heals. According to the Mayo Clinic, laughter does more than just help you clear mentally, but physically, it provides oxygen-rich air, stimulates your lungs, muscles, and heart and increases healing endorphins into your body.

David DiSalvo, author of What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do The Opposite, published an article in Forbes Magazine identifying six science based reasons laughter is the best medicine. I especially recognize two of these in the school setting. The first is that laughter has a similar impact on the brain, just as antidepressants do. When you laugh, you release neurotransmitter serotonin which is the same chemical in the brain that is affected by the common type of antidepressants, SSRIs. While the length of time differs between the medicine and laughter, the potent power of laughter is evident. 

The other reason is that “laughter is central to relationships,” according to DiSalvo. When I walk through the school hallways in the morning, I see plenty of evidence that this last reason rings true: students surprising their friends by jumping in their face to feign shock, a student tapping on the shoulder of another student and then acting like they didn’t (adults do this as well), a teacher laughing with a colleague about a story shared, two students practicing a hand shake. When we take the time to play with one another, we are connecting through laughter. Laughter frees us to: enjoy one another, relax when overwhelmed, and appreciate our lives. The connection that laughter provides builds relationships between people.  It allows the spark in me to understand the spark in you. 

It is obvious to me that students and teachers who are able to find humor with their friends and colleagues are more easily able to maintain a balanced life. They healthy perspective on their lives. Students who struggle with anxiety and insecurity are often the same ones who rarely laugh; these are the students who have trouble connecting with peers. Teaching students to laugh and play provides them a lifelong tool to combat stress and worry. As Annie Keys said, “That ability to laugh at myself takes me from being a victim to being a victor.” As educators and parents we must teach students today to recognize and find the humor in their mistakes.  The best way to do this is to recognize and find humor in our own mistakes and share this with those we lead.

Our students today take on the world. They are our offspring – the generation which thinks we can do everything and be everything.  We are the generation owho grew up slowly, and yet, can thrive within the fast pace of today. We are the generation who did not build relationships and connections with technology, but fully work within it now. Our children’s childhoods are busier and fuller than ever. Never before have children had so many options, so much information, and so many ways to connect with others. I  wonder, do my own children laugh as much as I did when I was their age? Do they play enough?

 “Play doesn’t just help us to explore what is essential. It is essential in and of itself.” Greg McKeown. This quote says it all to me. 

Play and laughter are essential. They help clear our minds and our hearts. They foster appreciation and wonder, joy and love. They calm us and heal us. As W.E.B Dubois said, “I am especially glad of the divine gift of laughter; it has made the world human and lovable, despite all it’s pain and wrong.” 

I hope you find time this week to play. I hope you hear the laughter in the hallways you walk, whether they are in a school building, a grocery store, business office, or out in nature. I hope you recognize it and are better for it. I hope you seize the moment to connect through play. You will gain more from those precious moments than from many others during your week. Thanks for reading.

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