I’m Rediscovering the Lost Art Of Recreation During COVID
It was about a week into what I (optimistically? naively?) thought was going to be a few months of isolation. Having escaped the frenzy of Manhattan for my childhood home in the suburbs, I was relishing in the novelty of working from home, dog nestled in my lap as I rotated through three pairs of raggedy high school sweatpants. “Social distancing” was the new phrase du jour, although toilet paper hadn’t *yet* disappeared off shelves. We were more in the “washing hands like you mean it” and continually refresh the news to see if any cases popped up in your state-stage of the pandemic.
As days passed, the gravity of the virus swiftly took hold — as did anxiety and uncertainty around how to move forward. There’s no playbook for this, I remember thinking to myself — a privileged thought, no doubt. Weeks began to blend together, muddled by mundanity and staggering sameness, and I found myself struggling to recall something, anything that set each day apart. With the world changing at a frighteningly rapid clip, time was marked by nothing but death. What number did we hit by the end of March? What about Easter?
If this was going to be a marathon (that nobody in the world seemed to have trained for, by the way) I had to pace myself. There were only so many times per day I could refresh the news, only so much time I could spend on social media before my mind went blank, only so many hours I could spend on Zoom. So on a Saturday afternoon around the beginning of April, after going on my daily walk and filling up on my fair share of escapism fiction, I turned to my brother (also home for the same reasons I was) and asked, “Want to go play outside?”
In his book Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, Stuart Brown, M.D. tells the story of an encounter between a polar bear and a Canadian Eskimo sled dog. Unable to hunt for months, the starving polar bear eyes the dog as his next meal and begins slowly approaching. The dog, perhaps unaware of the looming threat or resigned to his fate, bows his head and begins wagging his tail. Moments later, the two of them are wrestling with each other, but it’s not gruesome or bloody. They’re playing, softly nipping at each other’s fur for about 15 minutes, after which time the bear gets up and leaves — a testament, argues Dr. Brown, to a desire that, at that moment, superseded the desire to survive.
It was the desire to play.
Common among animals with high cognitive abilities (think felines, canines, primates, dolphins, and humans), play is endemic to our nature. Its role in healthy childhood development has been well researched and documented, with evidence pointing to its positive effects on the development of imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength.
“From a biological perspective,” explains Peter Gray, professor of psychology at Boston College, “play is nature’s means of ensuring that young mammals, including young human beings, acquire the skills that they need to acquire to develop successfully into adulthood.” Once we get there, the benefits of play may shift, but they don’t disappear. Because play is, by definition, creative, it boosts activity that stimulates the mind — in addition to easing stress (thanks, endorphins), generating optimism, reducing blood pressure, improving relationships, and fostering empathy.
And yet, as I fished the whiffle ball bat out of the pile of childhood toys in the garage, I couldn’t remember the last time I went outside for pure recreation — not to exercise, nor to walk from point A to point B. Just to have fun. Full stop.
We decided that my brother would start off pitching (and play every other position in the outfield) while I hit (or tried to, at least). We marked the bases with sticks and joked that we better not break a window. After a few rounds, we switched positions. I pitched, he hit.
There was nothing at all productive about what we were doing, and by conventional standards, we probably weren’t “acting our age.” But the longer we played, the more tension I felt leaving my body. My jaw, which I didn’t realize was instinctually, ever-so-slightly clenched, began to relax. My shoulders dropped away from my ears. And as I took a deep, yogic exhale, I found myself wondering why I ever stopped playing. When did I start taking myself so seriously? When did I decide that I didn’t have time for it, that it wasn’t worth it?
Over the next few months, #StayHomeAndPlay became a mantra in our household as we continued with whiffle ball, rode our bikes, filled up afternoons with games of monkey in the middle, explored local hiking trails we didn’t know existed, and drew a makeshift court with chalk for regular duels of driveway tennis (don’t knock it ‘till you try it). At one point later in the summer, I splurged on rollerblades (and knee pads, and elbow pads, and wrist guards) because, why not? My brother even tried for weeks to teach me how to do a layup, but turns out I’m not nearly coordinated enough to play basketball.
In relishing fun for fun’s sake, I found a temporary respite from the day-to-day trenches of everyday life. Part of me wonders if it was the setting — after all, it’s hard to come back home after living away for so long and NOT feel a twinge of nostalgia for childhood. Another part of me wonders if the excess of free time had something to do with it, too. But hey — I’m not not going to overthink it too much. No analysis needed. We’re just playing.