I recently spent some time cleaning out my parent’s attic and sorting through the remains of my childhood toys. Lego, action figures, dolls, Weebles, Fisher-Price Little People, Hot Wheels, and stuffed animals dominated, although there were also plenty of games and puzzles. Even some of my bath toys survived! When I looked through the piles, one thing jumped out at me: Almost everything I truly loved playing with as a kid offered open-ended play opportunities.
Now, granted, I come from a time that kids today would consider prehistoric. (We didn’t have electronic gizmos until the Atari 2600 came along and made home gaming possible.) The things I loved the most required me to use my imagination and create my own stories. I had to create the scenes for the action figures, and stage the epic battles in the bathtub between the boats and the whale. The relationships between my stuffed animals weren’t prescribed on their tags. Cars needed race tracks and I had to build them myself. Lego didn’t come in premade kits, either. (Again, prehistory here, but Lego used to just be a box of bricks with no instructions. It was up to you to decide what to build.)
This all apparently served me well since now I’m a novelist and use my imagination every day. But as I looked through my toys, I realized that I was sad. Not necessarily because my childhood had passed, but because it’s been a long time since I felt that pull of fun, unstructured play.
Like I said, I use my imagination every day. I’m paid to dream up stories and put them on paper. It’s fun and creative and I love it. But it isn’t the same as tactile, active play. As a kid, I would go outside and make up elaborate stories about living in a house in the woods. A certain formation of trees in the yard made the “house” and other plants in the yard were my “food sources.” Then, further down the hill was the “adventure spot” where whatever dramatic confrontation I’d thought up would take place before I’d retreat, victorious, back to the house in the woods. All of this was done within a few yards of the house because we didn’t have a huge yard. But in my imagination, it was epic.
I’d do much the same with other toys. My Star Wars action figures didn’t just have Star Wars adventures. They mixed in with the army guys, the Fisher Price people, and the stuffed animals for epic stories of their own. And not only was I creating the stories, I was acting them out with every “pew pew” of the laser cannons and all the dialogue and stunt work. Every day brought different stories, or variants on old favorites.
Today, I sit at my desk and imagine things. Sometimes I stand, as sitting is said to kill you as fast as smoking. But the epic battles take place in my head, now. I don’t act it all out and get personally involved with my creations. Staring at those toy piles, I remembered that joy and wanted it back. But, as they say, you can’t go home again. When I picked up an action figure, no magic happened. No great story came to mind, no epic battles ensued. The stuffed animals no longer talked to me, telling me their stories. Everything was just an inanimate object in my hand. I wanted to cry.
Somewhere along the line, like most adults, I lost that ability to play with abandon. We all lose it, I guess. First, there’s the pressure not to be weird. It’s kind of weird for an adult to be playing with toys, unless there are kids in the room. It’s weird for an adult to go charging around the yard, traveling to distant castles and fighting monsters. It’s weird to talk to your stuffed animals. And no one wants to be weird. Somewhere around middle school we learn to fear the ass-kicking that comes with being weird and we forever after avoid anything that might get our asses kicked.
Second, life just gets in the way. When we’re kids, we have homework, a few chores, and then we’re free to play. As adults, we spend most of the day at work and when we get home, all of the chores are ours to do. If there’s any time left after that, there are relationships to tend to, problems to deal with, and bills to pay. If we’re lucky, we carve out a few minutes for a hobby or some vegetating in front of the TV. There’s simply no time for play for most of us.
I’m at least more fortunate than most in that I do get to use my imagination in my job. I’m not stuck working with spreadsheets or making sales calls. (Nothing wrong with that if it’s what you love, but it would kill me.) I do get to play, if only in my head. But I wondered if I wasn’t missing something by trying so hard not to be weird. Fortunately, I’m at an age where I care less and less about what people think. The desire to fit in of my twenties has faded to a desire to be happy. So I brought the toys home and vowed to play again.
It was slow going at first. I’d truly forgotten how to play like that. How to take two action figures and make them talk to each other. How to create whole lives for stuffed animals. How to build something out of Lego without an instruction book. Slowly I remembered, though. At first, I only played with stuff when I was alone. There’s that fear of being weird, again. And I only played with the action figures in the context of “work,” using them to act out scenes from my novels-in-progress. I could tell anyone who stumbled on my weirdness that I was testing dialogue, or trying to see whether the woman would slap the guy with her left hand or right.
And it was hard. The magic just didn’t effortlessly happen like it did when I was a kid. Part of it was overcoming my fear of getting sent to the loony bin should anyone see this odd behavior. Mostly, though, it was because I’d simply forgotten how to get down and dirty with the fun. After so many years of living as a weirdness-avoiding adult, I’d lost the ability to just let it rip and do whatever came to mind. I was censoring myself too much. (And, epiphany, I realized that I’ve been censoring a lot of my creative impulses over the years and it’s time to fix that, too. So what if my ideas are odd? Some of the best things are things that someone once thought were too bizarre for words.)
Anyway, I’m getting better. I’m still not up to ripping from tree to tree in the yard, waving my imaginary sword. I do have neighbors and I suspect there’s a limit of what they’d endure before reporting me to the cops. However, when I go out for a walk in the evenings, I confess to noticing certain tree formations that would make good forts, or a creek that I would have treated as an epic river crossing back in the day.
But I do get the Lego out at least once a week and allow myself to build whatever comes to mind. I’ve built some race tracks for the cars and crashed a few in epic demolition derbies. The action figures are used for “work,” but they’re also brought out just to mess with. Nothing has been as intense as it was when I was a kid, but I’m slowly losing my fear and finding more of that childlike joy that comes from just letting your mind and body rip with whatever crazy thing comes to mind.
Playing is teaching me to be less judgmental of myself and my ideas and to let my creativity flow. It’s reminding me how short life is and how you have to embrace the fun wherever you find it. It may be odd, but it feels valuable. For now, that’s enough to keep me playing with my toys.