The importance of play and protecting the inner child

Remember those carefree days we spent as children? Out playing games in the sun, running around like the wind, laughing and shouting out excitedly? That stage in life was all about learning, growing up and having fun, for fun’s sake.

What changed? We grew up? Started taking life (and ourselves) a little too seriously? Formulated goals, expectations, bench marks for success and jumped into the rat race? We accepted the conventional behaviour of a grown up and internalised it. Life became heavy, cluttered and stressful and so did we. Revolving around achieving goals, reaching the pinnacle of financial and materialistic prosperity, settling down and what not.

All the habits and preferences that we developed during childhood seem to be tucked away at the back of our closet, and slotted as a period of life that is over but so fondly remembered.

But what if it doesn’t have to be over? What if we could bring back the light heartedness and carefree attitude that lit up our childhood? What if we brought back the ingredients that made our early years happy? What if we came back to life by nurturing the child we were that still exists within us and bring back some play time into our lives?

Maybe what’s missing from mundane adult life is fun and games. So, what is play?

“Any experience that is not impeded by a focus on outcome or the quality of outcome is play. An activity that allows us to be playful be it with words, colours or our bodies. Play is about just letting it flow. Look at Calvin and Hobbes. Calvin simply plays without a thought to what he will achieve out of that, and the rules keep changing according to his convenience. A lot of children don’t play. They are engaged in structured activity, with an emphasis on outcome whether it’s art and craft or gymnastics. Parents demand that they must learn something out of it. This is not liberating. We must turn our focus on the body and emotions and allow them to flow freely. Play is when it is not a rat race, when you’re not concerned about who is watching and how you are being judged,” shares Nupur Dhingra Paiva, Child Clinical Psychologist and Co-Founder of the Art of Sport in New Delhi.

Seeing how adult life is weighed down by stress and myriad shades of anxiety, adding some play to the routine may just be the answer to good physical and mental health. Ms. Paiva explains how it works.

“What I have found is that physical play reminds us that we live inside our bodies, not just in our heads. In urbans life, we use our heads and forget that we live in our bodies. When we play, it doesn’t involve the head much and the body takes the lead. We experience the satisfaction of using our muscles that gives us a feeling of wellbeing having activated them, parallel to getting a massage. The release of pressure feels good on a physiological level.” She ventures deeper to explain. “We forget that the body and mind are connected; all Eastern philosophies believe that they are one unit. Physical movement and activity has a direct impact on the mind, pulling down stress levels, making sleep even sweeter and helping cope with depression. Adults need to remind themselves that if they stop moving their body, it will come to a standstill. And I’m talking about exercise or play not aimed at enhancing something, but just for the sake of it.”   

The answer could lie in yoga or gardening or a pottery class – anything that helps switch off from work, bills, worries, relationships and everything that weighs us down, making life heavy. An activity that could reignite our creativity, imagination and dexterity.

However, everyday life runs on a hectic schedule and the question then arises, how can adults rediscover play?

“First of all, it is about internal permission. Can we give ourselves permission to not turn it into a task, a checklist, or something that will fetch us praise on Facebook or Instagram? Can we allow ourselves to do something and be open to failing miserably at it and still enjoying the process? Because in the beginning it is not fun, it is frustrating. Still can we be open to experiences that are separated from the outcome? Know, that it takes a lot of unlearning and that somebody or the other will find a reason to critique you. Forget the outcome and focus on the experience,” suggests Ms. Paiva quite simply.

This letting go requires a complete U-turn to the child that we often hush-up within ourselves. The process of play only gets easier with the release of that childlike spirit. Again, Ms. Paiva adds, “Being a child or childlike, as an adult is looked down upon. It’s associated with being immature, and a lot of adults don’t want to step into that area because it is silly. We take ourselves very seriously. We are afraid to be silly. But is that really the right way to live? Have you seen the Dalai Lama? He laughs at his own jokes and has this innocent and delightful childlike light-heartedness about him!” Can we shed our inhibitions and try to be like that?

She outlines the simplest and most basic form of play and freeing the inner child. “Get down on the floor and play with your kids, grand kids, nieces or nephews – a simple game of catch, chasing each other around the dining table or tickling them on the sofa. Play the music loud and dance like mad. Get them to pick the music! If you’re playing in the park, involve yourself in their games; it’s easy to put in 10 minutes without making a big ceremony out of it. You could even join a class, preferably with somebody who is like-minded and easy to relax around, so that you can motivate each other. And remember then, you are at your own starting point – no competition.”

When life feels like a burden, tapping into the inner child helps provide a safe haven to escape to. This is the little cave where you can pause, recover and heal. Adding a fun element to your days – something to look forward to – the thrill of learning a dance, the camaraderie of teammates during a game, the adrenaline rush, the uninhibited laughter, the happy sweat, the throbbing pulse. Experiences that can’t be replaced by a once a year fancy vacation or shopping on your credit card.

Keeping the body and mind free flowing and delighting in fun, childlike pursuits is a unique treasure chest of long-lasting happiness and good health. Don’t hesitate, open it up!

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