The Power of Play

“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” Plato

My eyes filled with happy tears as my happy memories of playing with my two sisters flooded my mind. In preparing to attend my youngest sister’s baby shower for her first and long-awaited for little girl, I have been buying some of our favorite nostalgic toys from our own childhood, namely and most notably a Cabbage patch doll and those weird bottles that look like they contain moving orange juice.

As I was wrapping these gifts that tapped into an archive of years of memories playing, I heard the rowdy gaggle of neighborhood boys planning an addition to their ram-shackle, tumble-down fort of spare parts. What began as a few pieces of wood has nearly taken over our overly-gracious neighbor’s entire side yard and has become our boys most recent palace of play.


As an intense human living in a busy and ambitious culture finding myself in such adult roles as wife and mom and minster of the gospel, I tend toward self-seriousness.  The tyranny of the urgent (read: laundry and lunches, homework and household chores) tends to hold me captive and has a way of sapping my life and perspective of wonder and play.

I was in such a state last week at our annual New Year’s conference where the Lord does tend to do some serious work in our lives and the lives of our college students. I had finally tamed my overly-stimulated children into sleep and left them with a babysitter to go do some of the Lord’s work at one of the seminars that began at 9:45 pm (only in college ministry is this even remotely normal).

I sat my exhausted self down in a chair at the back of the room, excited to hear my first talk from beginning to end while taking copious notes (I told you I was intense). As I was pulling out my journal, a precious little 5 year old approached me, all smiles and mischief.

“Will you play with me?” she asked with the begging eyes of a bored little girl stuck in an adult meeting.

As much as I wanted to be serious and do the serious thing, I knew the Lord wanted me to play with her.

We went into the hallway and proceeded to play a series of ridiculous games for over 30 minutes. We played lightening and thunder (which was really just tag, who knew?), we played keep up the balloon and we rode the escalator. A lot.

It was the highlight of my whole conference. I learned more from little friend Addison in that playtime than I learned the rest of the conference, with all due respect to our amazing speakers.

G. K. Chesterton, who wove wonder with his words, wrote the following about the playfulness and joy our Father God in his book Orthodoxy.

“It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

There is a world of difference between holy play that brings us into the presence of God and the escapist recreation that plagues our culture and our own lives all too often. One seeks to distract us from reality while the other brings us more deeply into the reality of the gospel and the world.

While glutting ourselves on recreation and man-made escapist fun deadens and numbs us, there is a place for recreation (re-creation) in the truest sense of the term. A few minutes of play in the presence of our God and the people whom He has sovereignly placed around us can propel us back into our tasks and chores and responsibilities with a heightened sense of wonder and purpose.

I wish that we were privy to the quick pull away retreats that the gospels tell us Jesus took with his tired disciples. With the weary world crowding in on them, needing legitimate healing from legitimate diseases and general dis-ease, I imagine Jesus finding ways to keep them laughing and playful, like when they were plucking wheat in the fields on the Sabbath. Along with his parables that taught serious lessons, I imagine that our Lord of life shared many funny anecdotes with his young and lively disciples.

C.S. Lewis captures this livelihood and merriment in the powerful yet playful Aslan in The Magician’s Nephew.  After literally roaring Narnia into being and introducing them to themselves, Aslan gives them commands and warning. The wonderful creatures all respond in unison, “No, Aslan, we won’t, we won’t.” But one jackdaw added a phrase on at the end when everyone else was silent, so caught up was he in the activity and joy. All the animals began to giggle under their breath and the jackdaw was embarrassed. Aslan’s response invites merriment.

 “Laugh and fear not, creatures. Now that you are no longer dumb and witless, you need not always be grave. For jokes as well as justice come in with speech.”  

We do well to the look to the ant, as the proverbs command, but we also do well to look to the playful antics of children.


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