It was a perfect beach day. The surf was relatively calm and occasionally broken by a series of larger swells ideal for body surfing or boogie boards. Contentedly, I lounged in my chair under the shade of a large umbrella. The gentle breeze kept my skin cool despite the heat.
As I sat drying off, I thought about the fun I’d had with my 10-year-old granddaughter. We loved getting in the water to play in the surf! Earlier in the week, I spent time helping her ride waves on her boogie board. I taught her how to jump over, dive under, or crouch to let big breakers pass harmlessly overhead. Today, she decided to be a shark, intent on having me for breakfast. After hours in the water, I retreated from our romp to rest—worn out from the fun but deeply content.
Looking around the beach, I realized that I was not alone. Everywhere I looked, children of all ages—grandparents, parents, teens, children, and toddlers—played in the water, rode waves, or built sandcastles. Boogie board riders and surfers lined up, waiting for the perfect swell. Parents held toddlers while venturing into shallow water. One enterprising youngster excitedly tried casting a small net to catch fish. Frisbees and footballs flew. Faces lit with joy, and the sounds of laughter filled the air.
“How long,” I wondered, “has it been since these families shared the joy of playing together?” My mind raced as I considered, “Why is play so important for healthy attachments and a healthy life.”
In his book, Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul, Dr. Stuart Brown writes,
“…There is a kind of magic in play. What might seem like a frivolous or even childish pursuit is ultimately beneficial. Paradoxically, a little bit of downtime can make one enormously more productive and invigorated in other aspects of life…it’s a catalyst, enlivening everything else. Once people understand what play does for them, they can learn to bring a sense of excitement and adventure back to their lives, make work an extension of their play lives, and engage fully with the world. I don’t think it’s too much to say that play can save your life…Play is the vital essence of life.”
Play is a natural state for children. It’s how they learn to move and interact with parents and the world around them. An infant learning to wobble and toddle on two legs from parent to parent is an example of an essential developmental task wrapped in play. Parents crouch at the child’s level with smiling faces and voices of encouragement. “Come to mommy. Look at you! You are walking! Just a few more steps.” Laughter and big hugs follow as the game continues. Play helps grow strong attachments. When kids play together, they learn how to relate to others. It’s one of the most significant ways that they learn socialization skills.
As adults, play continues to be an essential aspect of bonding. Brown explains that play invites emotional closeness and builds relationships. It is a safe way to open up and grow attachments. “Play is the lubrication that allows human society to work and individuals to be close to each other. Which is why play is the most important element in love.”
Brown’s findings create a beautiful harmony to Paul’s magnificent description of love in I Corinthians 13. Play provides a unique context for us to develop, grow, and share God’s love. Gatherings outside more structured church services allow people to connect informally and develop healthy relationships. Here, people can learn to express love more personally and deeply.
Play is so crucial for bonding that I encourage small group leaders to set aside time for informal frolicking. Sharing meals is a simple way to grow relationships and provide limited opportunities to play. But the fun needs to go much further than mealtime. Groups I supervise are encouraged to set aside time to do something fun apart from their regular meeting structure. I’m also a firm believer in providing ample opportunities for the entire church to play together. Our church has a “Games Group” whose sole purpose is sponsoring games like volleyball, kickball, softball, swimming parties, or hayrides—inviting all ages and stages of our members to come and play together. Games not only help individual families grow closer – they help the whole church family connect more deeply.
The fun, laughter, and joy I shared with my granddaughter at the beach deepened our connection, too. I can’t wait to see how our relationship grows and changes in the wake of the time away. I hope you have the same opportunity to enjoy the joy of playing with those you love.