The power of play

How do protests and a pandemic invite us to rediscover play?

4 minute read
Danie Jackson plays the guitar, giving and receiving smiles. (Image courtesy of the artist.)
Danie Jackson plays the guitar, giving and receiving smiles. (Image courtesy of the artist.)

Most caregivers of children have been asked at least one existential question by a child: Why do we have to die? Where does the moon go when it disappears? Does Santa Claus really exist?

We’ve been taught by leading child psychologists to answer only the question the child asks. Sometimes we are even encouraged to admit our ignorance. Either way, most of us answer our children, even if we do not know what to say, or even if the answers are unsatisfying.

The sweeping changes we've seen in 2020 have children asking very challenging questions: Why are police officers killing Black people? Why do some people think Black lives don’t matter? Why do some people wear facemasks and others don’t?

More than mirrors

Children are more than mirrors of our own behaviors. They are visionaries of a different future. In my estimate, visionaries must see an undesirable event plainly, without personal prejudice or bias. Next, they must play. It’s in playing that we dream of something different.

I find myself wanting to be a visionary and a mirror in these times. I need to understand how to see our social issues in a new light. If you find yourself talking to your friends and family with an abject sense of hopelessness, then you probably know this feeling.

So how do adults behave more like children? How do we become mirrors and visionaries in this post-COVID nation?

Learning to play again

I haven’t done too much intentional play since the onset of the pandemic. I would guess that most of us haven’t. Life as we know it has delivered us a laundry list of things we cannot do. Protests for racial justice have impacted every facet of our lives. It’s easy to rationalize that there is no time for play, or that we simply lack the resiliency to play safely.

I learned how to play again by walking. I am a six-foot-tall, queer, blind, Black, nonbinary person. In the wake of George Floyd’s death, I do not always walk with a cane. I fear that someone might misread my inability to see their social cues as some sort of offensive gesture, and that I could be subject to the police. Just imagine if Christian Cooper, of the now-infamous May incident in New York’s Central Park, couldn’t see what Amy Cooper was intending to do.

If you’ve never walked terrified before this may be difficult to understand, but it’s like feeling everything through Jell-O. Nothing looks, sounds, or feels like it should. When you get focused, any little thing can obscure your sense of security. But I walk anyway. In the beginning I did it with a stick I’d bought from the Renaissance Faire years ago. It’s encrusted with faux precious gems and carved illustrations, and if someone could forget I am a Black person, they’d think of Gandalf from Lord of the Rings.

I started walking with my guitar after that, playing as I walked my four-mile circuit. What I notice is that the stares or averted eyes I had once received had shifted. (Blind people cannot always see facial expressions, but we can hear them. Averted eyes can be heard through a shift in posture or positioning.) People I was fearful of began smiling when they greeted me, which made me smile. Something changed when I walked with a creative tool I had chosen.

Imagine the ripples

My walks don’t keep away the threat of COVID. They don’t decrease my susceptibility to racism or police brutality, but they help me keep my position as vulnerable and open to all the good that life still has to offer. Staying on the move helped me release fears as the prejudices they were, and helped me to see my daily walks in a more vibrant way. Some might call that hope, but I think it’s human resiliency allowed to take form. Just imagine those ripples if we played like a kid for the day in those muddy puddles. Who knows what visions we might inspire?

Image description: Danie sits in a room that looks like a bedroom, singing and playing a guitar, with a relaxed and soulful expression.

For another perspective on walking during the pandemic, read Anndee Hochman's essay.

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