How to Play When You Hate Playing

My husband circa 1980. He is still good at playing. I'm not.

My husband circa 1980. He is still good at playing. I'm not.

I hate playing. I don’t want to pretend to be Kirsty Tate to my daughter’s Rachel Walker. I don’t want to stuff everything I own into several old shopping bags and imagine that I’m going on an airplane with an imaginary cat named Chester. This is not fun for me. But the guilt! Oh, the guilt. So I do it. Painfully. Begrudgingly. Who’s with me!?!

Interestingly, play should actually be a lifelong pursuit—it is not just important for children. It helps adults solve problems, engage creatively, and even improve relationships. But here is the thing: Play looks different for different people and spanning developmental stages. What is play for my four-year old daughter is decidedly not play for me at 36.

Play researcher Dr. Stuart Brown has identified some of the characteristics of play. They include: 1) The activity has no practical purpose; 2) It is so fun that you don’t want it to end; and 3) You lose any sense of inhibition while doing it.

Dr. Brene Brown tells an anecdote in The Gifts of Imperfect Parenting about trying to incorporate play into her family and her son running for the Candy Land board. That, for her, is not play—it is parenting. I can relate; time does not evaporate when one has to negotiate with one’s four-year old that they indeed have to go back to that square when they were already at Queen Frostine.

Instead, her family engaged in a formal process (Venn diagrams were involved! My heart’s all aflutter!) whereby they mapped out what play looks like for each member. They hit upon a short list of activities that were mutually satisfying and now they make sure that when they hang out together or plan vacations, anything they do is aligned with their play list (if you will).

I love this idea. So I had a conversation with my daughter where I explained that I don’t like to play pretend, that it is tough for me. I told her that I love that she loves to play pretend and that I want her to keep doing it. But instead, when we are together, maybe we could read books or go on outings or do art projects—all things that we both enjoy. She consented.

And you know what? Play has felt more like actual play ever since.

What about you? What activities sit in the middle part of your family’s Venn diagram of play?

Venn diagram of playing