Monday Over Coffee: "Play"

Published June 12, 2023 by Greg Funderburk

I was seriously dedicated to playing when I was a little kid. Seriously dedicated. I'd play in the living room, down the hall, in my room. But what I really loved was playing outside. In the backyard. In the front yard. In the vacant lot down the street. In our driveway. On my bike. At school recess. With the dog. Even in the nearby bayou. I played with a holy fervor.

My brother, David, and I used to participate in several properly organized athletic leagues—our community's sports association football league, our neighborhood's little league, our church's basketball league. But there was something else too. David and I also had our own home-brewed sports leagues—ones which exercised not just our bodies, but our minds, as well. That is to say, we came up with whole imaginary rosters of baseball, basketball, and football teams—entire divisions and leagues of made-up teams—all with their own names, uniforms, and schedules. We'd go outside and play for hours and hours against each other like this.

We'd put bases down and set up a picnic bench as a backstop in the yard during baseball season. We'd scratch out sidelines and endzones in the grass for football. We marked off a free throw line in the driveway for basketball. Each league had its own play-off scenarios and championship games. And as soon as football was over, it was opening day for baseball with our mother singing the National Anthem from the patio as the new season got underway. Then, in a few months just as we crowned our own World Series champion, basketball season would start right up again.

We'd break windows. We'd tear up grass. We'd skin up our knees requiring medical care. Yes, there were expenses, but they were borne by others. Also, it wasn't uncommon that David and I would fight about a call that he?d make or I?d make as we had no referee or umpires. Occasionally, there would be a dust up due to a misunderstanding about the score. And if it was raining—if we absolutely couldn't play outside—we'd go inside, cut out cardboard squares, and draw baseball, football, and basketball cards with the images and stats of the imaginary players we had conjured up out of thin air.

Then something happened. David got a little older, and sadly, he became more and more interested in music and his own friends and less and less keen on devoting such huge swaths of time and energy playing made-up games with his little brother. I'd want to play ball as soon as we got home from school, but he'd have something else to do. I'd want to hold a long series of games beginning early on Saturday morning, but he'd countenance maybe only one or two. And as his interest began to flag, I could only surmise that something was wrong with him as it was simply beyond me that anything could possibly be as fun as the sacred act of playing games like this.

Of course, there's great utility in playing as a kid. It's how children begin to make connections between the physical world and concepts that are more abstract. It's how they begin to socialize with one another and figure out how to mediate disputes. Playing is a source of joy and reduces stress. It cultivates self-awareness and coping skills while promoting creativity, imagination, dexterity, as well as physical, cognitive, emotional, and spiritual strength. In short, playing is crucial to the healthy development of young brains in all sorts of ways. However—and we often forget this—playing is not just for kids. 

Maybe you head out onto the golf course, the tennis or pickleball court, the swimming pool, or the softball field every so often. Or maybe you regularly make a point of gathering around a card table to play a board game, dominoes, or to do a puzzle with friends or family. Or perhaps you have another hobby that falls into the category of "play." But if you don't, give some thought to how long it's been since you were completely absorbed in this way? Ask how long it's been since you left behind your work, your anxieties, your phone, even the thought of the need to exercise, and just went out and played imaginatively in some kind of manner. Think about it. Because if we've somehow convinced ourselves that we don't have the time; if it's been so long that we can't even conceive of such a thing; or if we can't comprehend that simply playing for the sake of playing can sometimes be a sacred act—perhaps there is something wrong with us.

God — May I play today with a holy fervor. Amen.

— Greg Funderburk