I remember being incredibly aware at 10 years old how lucky I was.
On weekend, holiday, and summer mornings, I’d wake up and think through the exciting array of play options in front of me. There were all kinds of toys, games, dolls, costumes, as well as accoutrements for playing school, detective, and office.
My bookshelves were lined with novels, biographies, science books, and magazines. The woods right outside my door were perfect for a fort-building adventure, or I could walk across the field to my neighbor’s house and go horseback riding.
I could opt to play alone or with my sister or brother. I could call up a friend or two and see if they’d like to come over. When friends arrived, they generally had a clear preference for what they wanted to do first, and within minutes, we’d be deep in play mode. Most of the time, we’d be in my house’s play room — a huge room dedicated to toy storage, pet habitats, and play.
Out of the cupboards would come the Lite-Brite, the Showboat, the Spirograph, and/or Barbie and all her gear.
The Lite-Brite gave me my first glimpse into how much I enjoyed playing with color. I could use the sheets provided to create an illuminated image with the plastic pegs, or I create my own design (which I often preferred). You could change the entire look of something by changing the position or color of one peg, and it was simple to do: just remove one and put another in its place. Experimenting was fun and failure free.
The Spirograph indulged my love of pens, paper, and design. By placing a pen inside the holes of the little gears and moving your hand in a circle, you could make the most intricate geometric patterns like hypotrochoids and epitrochoids. I trace my current love of the design of golden triangles, nebulas, and nautiluses to the Spirograph.
The toy that reigned supreme, however, was the Showboat.
The Showboat was literally a large Showboat (patterned after a Mississippi River Showboat) that featured a stage in the center of the boat. The toy came with set pieces you could slide into the stage for creating various dramatic scenes. It also came with the characters you would need for acting out the plays, as well as the scripts.
We played with the Showboat for hours and hours and hours, sometimes using the scripts provided, but most times creating our own plays and performances. (I attribute the Showboat to my writing a full-length play in the 5th grade which several of my classmates and I acted out in front of our class.) It was such a simple, clever toy that I always found to be fun and fresh because we were bringing our creativity to the toy, not the other way around.
We were actively creating. Not passively consuming.
Recently, I began thinking about how my play has changed over the years. I realized that (with the exception of travel and travel-related activities) I had become much less engaged in the activity. That is, I had adopted something of an expectation that my play time should be a time to unwind, decompress, and escape. A zone-out zone.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with using free time to relax, but I had stopped all of my imaginative play that put me deeply in a creative zone of adventure where time stood still and synapses were firing in delight. I had been working way too many hours, leaving little or no time (or energy) for much else.
As my time spent in active play dwindled, color seemed to drain out of other areas of my daily life. Work increasingly became my focus — it was my vocation and avocation.
When I woke up and realized I wanted and needed to make some changes, I stocked up on art supplies in every shape and form; allocated a table in my house for painting, sketching, and writing; and dove in without rules, restrictions, and expectations. I was clumsy at first. Rusty. And not a little bit judgemental of what I created.
I kept going.
In the two years since my awakening, I have noticed how returning to play has shaped how I think, how I move in the world, and how much courage I have. I am much more willing to make big decisions quickly without worrying (obsessing) about outcomes. I am happier, more centered, and open to what is.
And like the Showboat toy led me to write a play entitled, “The Princess Gets Sick” in the 5th grade, my revamped creative play over the last two years is leading me to write a book that has long remained quiet in the corner, waiting for me to regain consciousness.
I leave in two weeks to go to a beach house I’ve rented and spend a month focused on writing and nothing else. The very thought of doing so has already transported me to the place of unparalleled joy where you gleefully discover what wants to be created while time and space slip away and nothing and everything exist all at once.