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Lessons in listening: The importance of play

Back in the springtime, I was chatting with a custodial supervisor up on the hill. I had just given a mindful eating workshop at the yearly custodial fair and was all hyped up on adrenaline and caffeine post-presentation. This is the perfect hormonal cocktail for me to start scheming up big ideas and planning future endeavors. That particular day, I offered up my services to plan, organize, implement, present and contribute monetarily to a series of Lunch and Learns for the entire custodial staff.
Stimulants aside, I honestly have no regret regarding this commitment. These kinds of projects provide a platform for me to actualize what I love most about my job. I get the opportunity to work creatively in a team and share research and ideas on how to live our best lives possible — individually and in community. This “work” feeds my soul.
Last week was the second quarterly Lunch and Learn and the topic I chose to share on was the importance of play. It felt apropos, as the vibe up here (at Middlebury College) is a bit constrained and tense with the uncertainty surrounding the restructuring of our workforce. It is precisely times like this when engaging in play is essential. Play strengthens our resilience to stress and adversity. Play increases our sense of community and connection. Hands down, play enhances our overall wellbeing.
Play is in our DNA. Children know it. Puppies know it. Have you ever sat in a park and watched the crazy antics of squirrels playing together? They know it. Yet, as adults, many of us seem to have forgotten our membership in the animal kingdom and disregarded this knowledge. We have traded in our playfulness for responsibility, accomplishment and productivity. Often, the unfortunate outcome is a serious form of sludging through our lives. The good news is that life does not have to exist in the rigidity of a black and white worldview with all work and no play, or vice versa. Play and playfulness veritably contributes to success in life and work. Here is one of those miraculous times when you can actually have your cake and eat it too. 
Play can be experienced in innumerable forms, yet there are fundamental features that all forms of play share. Playful activities are engaging, pleasurable and the experience of play is more important than the outcome. At the Lunch and Learn last week our unstructured playtime included Corn Hole, Can Jam, Uno, Connect Four, cribbage and coloring. Those are the activities we chose, but what did the play look and feel like? It looked like people smiling and assuming open and relaxed postures — unselfconsciously. It sounded like laughter and good-natured banter. It felt both energizing and calming. It was what we need more of in this world: community and connection. For even just one hour, we put aside our varied lifestyles, worldviews, and politics and trusted each other enough to play together.
Play is most definitely a verb, an action of doing. It can also be an adjective that punctuates your approach to life, reflecting a way of being. It my home, it can be the way I cook breakfast — singing a made up tune. It can be how we walk to school — riling up all the neighborhood dogs and kids with jokes and silliness. It can be how we work — choosing to trust each other and share who we really are together. I know this for sure: at the end of the day when I’ve played with many of you in town, my heart is full.
With that, I’m off to construct a space-themed music playlist for a 24-hour adventure race this weekend. Time to get my play on!
Laura Wilkinson is a Nurse Practitioner and Integrative Health Coach at Middlebury College. Learn more about her and her coaching at middlebury.edu/middleburyintegratedhealthcoach.

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