Learning to Play: Rediscovering the Discipline of Recreation

  • 23 March 2018
  • Randy Wollf

women laughing while swingingWhen I first read Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, I was a little shocked that play and recreation made it onto Peter Scazzero’s list of spiritual disciplines. Yet, the more I thought about it, the more I realized how essential these activities are to our well-being. True recreation leads to the “re-creation” of our bodies, minds, and spirits, which allows us to worship God more deeply and serve Him more effectively.

Psychologists describe play as any activity that is voluntary, flexible, and enjoyable.

With four children in our family, I have read hundreds of children’s books over the years. One stands out as having some important lessons about play and recreation: The King’s Stilts by Dr. Seuss (I’ll share a condensed version, but you can hear the whole story here).

Once upon a time, a king and his people lived on a beautiful island in the middle of the ocean. The people lived happy lives and only had one concern: the tide. You see, the island was a sunken island and the high tides could easily wash away the people. Fortunately, the inhabitants had planted trees around the perimeter of the island. These trees, with their tightly interwoven roots, kept the tidal waters at bay. The only problem was that a certain type of bird loved to eat the roots that served as a protective wall around the island.

The king knew what he had to do. He personally trained an army of cats to chase away the root-eating birds. Every day, the king would wake up early to take care of his royal duties. He would then marshal his cat troops, train them, and set them loose to protect the island.

As you can imagine, the king’s work was exhausting. However, there was something that the king did at the end of every day that filled him with energy. He would go to his closet and pull out a pair of red stilts.

The king loved his red stilts. He would excitedly climb on them and run around the kingdom with a child-like abandon. After his play time, the king felt refreshed, energized, and ready for another busy day at the office.

Unfortunately, not everyone in the kingdom approved of the king’s antics. Lord Droon, one of the king’s nobles, thought that the king’s childish behavior was unseemly, distasteful, and downright inappropriate.

So, when the king was not looking, Lord Droon stole the red stilts. He told one of the young pages in the king’s court to bury the stilts so that the king would never find them.

When the king got home from work that day, he opened his closet only to find that his beloved red stilts were gone. He looked everywhere, but they were nowhere to be found.

Over time, the king became increasingly discouraged. He no longer attacked his royal duties with his usual vigour. He lost interest in commanding the cat armies. Soon, the cats became undisciplined and no longer gave the necessary attention to chasing away the birds. The kingdom was in grave danger.

The young page saw what was happening and knew that he must act quickly. He went to the spot where he had buried the red stilts, unearthed them, and brought them to the king.

The king was overjoyed! He jumped on his red stilts and immediately set out to mobilize his cat army. With a mighty shout, the king led the charge against the birds who were threatening his kingdom.

The king and his army arrived just in time. They were able to chase away the birds and the island was saved. From that time on, the king led his people and his cats well, all because of his red stilts.

This story begs the question: What are the red stilts in our lives?

Over the years, I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon in myself and others as we get busier with work and other commitments. We play less and when we do play, we often feel guilty or uncomfortable doing “childish” things.

Let me pose some questions for you to consider:

Do you have permission to play?

Sometimes our upbringing, culture, and life circumstances can take away our permission to play. God made us playful. He gave us the gift of laughter. He wants us to play in ways that re-create and position us to love Him and the people around us with greater devotion. 

What did you enjoy doing as a child?

As a child, I loved playing sports (especially racket sports like badminton) and board games. I loved exploring and going on adventures. I thoroughly enjoyed reading mystery and adventure novels (books from The Hardy Boys series were a staple of my reading diet). It makes sense that these kinds of activities would also be enjoyable for me as an adult (and they are). Tapping into some of our fun childhood activities can reinstate play to its rightful and necessary place in our lives.

How often do you play?

Playfulness is a lifestyle. It’s important that we schedule play time, but it’s even more important that we enjoy life as it happens. Whether it’s enjoying the fun banter in the workplace or making sure to devote some free time to an enjoyable hobby, we need to practice playfulness.

What re-creates you? 

This question is startlingly like the one I posed in a previous blog called Practicing Life-Giving Sabbath. What gives you life? Even though play and recreation are not the full story when it comes to a Sabbath focus, they are an important way to rest, rejuvenate, and refocus on God and His priorities. A Sabbath lifestyle of rest that stretches from Sunday to Saturday will have a strong play component.

Plato once said, "You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation." Our true identifies often surface as we play. The guards come down and we’re kids again. Not only do others see more of who we really are, but we experience the refreshment and healing that comes from playfulness and laughter.

Are you struggling to see the importance of play or don’t know how to develop this discipline? Here are some ideas from Margarita Tartakovsky’s article called The Importance of Play for Adults:  

Change how you think about play

Part of the challenge is that we tend to associate play with childhood, which leads to the thinking that playfulness is childish. Yet, Tartakovsky claims that play brings joy to adults, which is essential for problem solving, creativity, and relationships. 

Surround yourself with playful people

Playfulness is contagious! As you hang out with playful people, you will likely find yourself slipping into a spirit of playfulness, too. 

Play with little ones  

There’s nothing quite like a child to bring the child out of us. 

The wisest man who ever lived understood the importance of enjoying life. Solomon wrote, “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones” (Proverbs 17:22). Are you ready for a big dose of good medicine? 

Randy Wollf is the Director of MinistryLift and Associate Professor of Practical Theology and Leadership Studies at MB Seminary

>> Looking for more? Randy teaches about spiritual disciplines and he offers strategies to help people grow godly character into their lives. Click here to contact Randy with your question or training request.