I'm having one of those "life must be working out just as it should" weeks, because, in several arenas of my life, one big question keeps cropping up: when is someone too old to play?
In recent days, I've been told by more than one parent of a teenager that their kids don't "play" anymore. When they do have breaks from their hoards of homework, they go on-line, or maybe they watch TV. If parents are lucky, maybe they'll take a walk. But play? Nah. Too old.
Also, I've heard from parents of middle-schoolers that kids are "hanging out" these days rather than having "playdates." "What do they do?" I asked. The answers from my informal tiny-group survey were: Wii, YouTube, TV, movies. Play? Nah. Too old. Toys? Nah. Too old. (Bluntly, this doesn't mesh with the amount of Nerf and Lego stuff I see labelled 12+. Something's off.)
For my daughter Petunia's recent 11th birthday, parents asked, "What's she into these days? You know, since they've outgrown toys?" I tried not to cry. I also tried not to "out" my daughter for her Earth Friend and American Girl dolls with which, yes, she still plays. Come to think of it, she still plays Playmobil and Legos with her brother, Dash; in fact, when she received the Lego Harry Potter "Burrows" from him for her birthday, it might have been her favorite gift. They still build with K'nex and Tinker Toys, train tracks and Matchbox cars, blocks and paper. They especially love building forts out of found materials and can spend all day making cities with sidewalk chalk and string and sticks and rocks. When they're not together, Petunia still plays with her dolls on her own, or does crafts projects (which I consider playing much of the time), or writes stories (playacting in her head). She does still play, and yes, sometimes with toys; when not with toys, she's still very much playing -- like last Thanksgiving, when she shocked us as she lashed together a real TeePee made from 2x4's and moving blankets (thank you, Girl Scouts!) then proceeded to dress as a Native American for our celebration. In other words, she acted like a 10 year-old girl -- a pretty bada$$ 10 year-old girl, if I do say so myself! And frankly, I hope she incorporates that whole act into her Thanksgiving routine every year until she's so old she has to ask a grandkid to do it. Too old to play? No. Way.
I grew up playing with cousins on a farm, and then with friends in a town, and often with family in a living room. We played cards, and it's been super-special lately to teach my daughter the same card game ("Spite and Malice") that I used to play with my great-grandmother and my grandmother. I would give up anything else to play that game with them, anytime -- still would. I also remember many family Scrabble games, Trivial Pursuit, and much more far before video games and computers. Nowadays, I play the occasional on-line game, and I do enjoy the Wii from time to time -- but give me that card deck, and it's what I'd rather do more than anything else. Too old to play? Never.
When I took up snowboarding at 35, I didn't do it because I'm crazy. I did it because I like to play in the snow. I did it because I wanted my kids to see me try to learn something new, to take a risk, to fall down, to get back up again, and to squeal with excitement the first time I connected a turn. I wanted them to see that you're never too old to have that much fun. It's a sport, but it's just playing in the snow.
I know that play changes shape and form over time, and I do know that, for kids these days, a lot of it is virtual. But we need to still send our kids to the park with a soccer ball. We need to teach them our old card games. Even if they're 16 and have 5 APs for which to study and seemingly no time for play, we have to get them to come outside with us and fashion the perfect pirate ship out of a cardboard box for the new 5 year-old boy in the neighborhood. We need to find a way because we want to, because we know that happy, healthy people need to have something silly and joyful in their life. Just think of Steve Jobs' words: not just to "stay hungry," but to "stay foolish." Had he never played, would Apple exist today?
In closing, I'll share that the most fun I've had of late was at the Maker Faire taking part in a project to crowdsource the construction of a huge model drawbridge from recycled objects. (I think it was from Berkeley Institute of Design, but don't quote me on that.) For about an hour, my two kids and I worked alongside ages almost-1 to 90-something to duct-tape and string together a remarkable contraption that never really worked, but oh, how we laughed with strangers. We were participating in a crazy experiment, perhaps, but it was even simpler than that: we were playing with the same stuff kids have always played with: materials at hand, repurposed into something amazing.
Too old to play? Never. It's like saying one's too old to live.