It was gorgeous here on Saturday. Too gorgeous to sit inside all day. So, I took my notes, my current summer reading material, and my new pair of sunglasses and packed up for an afternoon of studying in the park.
A few people passed by on their way to the bus stop, the coffee shop, or the parking garage and didn't take much notice of me on my bench. A middle-aged woman and two young children crossed the street and sat on the bench to wait for the bus. The children - two girls, the oldest was maybe seven and her sister either four or five - immediately began exploring the park.
Instantly, they were in play.
"Hi!" the oldest said to me as she rounded the curve where I was sitting. "Hi!" I said back, smiling. She continued on her way, with her sister following close behind, imitating her every step. "This is the path to the princess," the older one said. I pretended to read my notes as I watched them play. They were skipping around the same section of the park - an oblong circle - but every time they rounded the corner, it was as if it was brand new territory to explore.
"Y'all get down from there!" a voice said from behind me. "You're going to fall!"
The girls returned quickly to where their "Nana" was waiting but within a minute or two, they were back on their quest for the missing princess. "For real, for real, this is the way to the princess," the older one said as they made their way around the circle again. "Princess!" the younger one called out. Within minutes, they went from searching for the princess to chasing the princess through the magical forest. They changed direction and circled round the same section of the park as if it were brand new.
"Y'all stop that! Come over and sit on this bench. You're going to miss the bus!" the voice said again.
The girls again paused their game of play and sat for a moment but just as before, they were quickly on their feet again. Now, the game was Hide and Seek. The older one ran across the little park to a new section (yet to be explored) and the younger one soon followed. As they chased each other around the flower bed in the middle of the park, they saw a bright orange butterfly. They both froze in an instant, mesmerized. The older one quickly gave instructions to her sister - "Wait here, I'll get it," she said as she tiptoed closer and closer. As she reached her hand out slowly, the butterfly flew up into the air suddenly, causing both little girls to jump back and squeal. Now, the game was "chase the butterfly." A man blowing leaves off the park benches jumped into the game for a minute when he reached his hands up as the butterfly flew overhead. The girls giggled.
Within the span of twenty minutes or so, these girls moved seamlessly from one idea to another without discussion (i.e. "now what should we do" or "how about we play this?") and without explanation (i.e. "so, there's this princess in a magical forest and we're going to go find her"). They were in almost constant play the entire time (except for those intervening moments where an adult told them to STOP playing and wait for the bus). I was struck by their uninhibited creativity, their level of imagination, and the quick change of pace.
This is play.
Do we remember what it feels like? How did we forget? Do we encourage it when we see it or do we tell children to stop playing so they can do something boring and adult like sit on a bench waiting for the bus?
Maybe play is more important than sitting and waiting. Maybe play is more important than watching TV all afternoon. Maybe real play is more important than playing games on a handheld device. Play is how we learn, how we grow, and how we develop creativity. Play is how we learn to interact with others. Play is how we learn to dream, discover, and explore. Have you searched for the lost princess lately? For real, for real, this is the way.
Image Credit: my iPhone