I was recently surprised when I became enamored with Chomp, an app for children designed by Christoph Niemann (an illustrator for the New York Times and the New Yorker, among others). The app allows the user to insert a photo, or live video, into an animated scene (with soundtrack) that changes form with the tap of a finger. The result: a unique animated and photographic creation that can be recorded and shared with others.
My personal favorite so far: Watching myself wearing cat’s eye glasses, with the body of a cat, stretching and tapping my feet while playing riffs on an electric guitar. A bit of a stretch from my usual, more serious, appearance. Every time I see it, I laugh out loud. And after some initial hesitation (what would people think?) I’ve had fun sharing it with family and friends.
The experience reminded me that “play” is a serious matter for human beings. Though we tend to prioritize work as we enter adulthood, we never outgrow the need for play. Play expands our sense of possibility, and creates space in the mind for new associations, insights, and self-awareness. According to the influential child psychologist, Donald Winnicott:
“It is in playing, and only in playing, that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self. “
In his work with young children, Winnicott played a game he called the Squiggle Game. It was a little bit like Chomp (but much lower tech). He would start by closing his eyes, and drawing a few lines or “squiggles” on a piece of paper. His young client would then finish by incorporating the squiggles into a drawing (a cat, a treehouse, anything). The two would then switch roles, and talk about their mutual creations. Winnicott observed that children communicated important aspects of their personalities and concerns through this drawing game.
Emma Seppala, author of The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success, cites 5 reasons for why play is likely to benefit people of all ages:
1. It boosts our creativity, by pairing problem solving with activation of “pleasure centers” in the brain.
2. It helps us to think “outside the box” and therefore facilitates “getting unstuck.”
3. It improves our health and well being, by promoting laughter and relieving tension.
4. It helps us to be present and engaged in the here-and-now (a form of mindfulness).
5. It connects us to others, whether formally (through games) or informally (through our sense of joy and shared humanity).
So whatever your age, or how full your schedule is, make time for play. Even for a few minutes. If you are curious about the benefits, try keeping a “play journal” and noting your experiences - what do you most enjoy, what changes do you observe, what if anything surprises you, and how do others respond? (Rock on!)
--Mary Walker, MA, LPC