Get back into the sandbox.

How we play is how we live. Play is practice living. We act out pretend life dramas in imagined worlds as safe places for learning character development, socializing, citizenship.

Play is not just for kids; it’s any activity that is creative, expressive, expansive, and performed more for the mere pleasure than for a contrived outcome. Studies show that fun, spontaneity, relationship and connection, silliness or goofiness, and creativity keep us healthy and happy well into our senior years.

So why do we stop?

Something gets lost between childhood and adulthood. Play is abandoned for work, fun is dismissed as childish, creative activities are diminished to daydreaming. We become focused on success or power or possessions. We learn to believe that “if it can’t be measured, it isn’t important”, or “second place is only for losers,” or “the destination is more important than the journey”.

Worst of all, we morph from being participants to spectators. We quit taking risks, pushing edges, and instead opt to live vicariously through our children, TV stars, or sports heroes. Cynicism sets in as personal aspirations are abandoned.

It doesn’t have to be like this, of course. We have choices.

This idea of play was presented in stark relief for my daughter Sara and I during the last night of a fascinating trip to Argentina. We had spent the day touring the historic district of La Boca, Buenos Aires, a neighbourhood steeped in tango tradition and soccer heroics. Mulling through brightly coloured curios shops and posing with storefront tango dancers, we became increasingly aware of the rising din of banner-waving, beer-drinking soccer fans, revving up their team spirit for the match that afternoon.

Later that evening, we went to the square in the San Telmo neighbourhood where public dancing and performances are hosted Sunday evenings. Several couples thrilled us with the dramatics of performance tango. The performers passed around a hat and it is apparent they dance for love, not money. The dance floor quickly filled with 150 tanguero-wannabees and another hundred or so cheering them on.

It’s close to midnight when we made our way back to our residence. As we attempted to cross a major street, we were blocked by a procession of eight police cars, sirens blaring, ushering at break-neck speed two luxury double-decker buses of soccer players to get them out of town before violence was incited.

Seeing that was a dramatic contrast to the peaceful, positive scene we had just left. Two entirely different learnings of community engagement and character development.

This does not divide neatly into an arts versus sports rant. Some of our elite athletes are also our model citizens. Nor does it mean all art or music is enculturating or edifies. We all know of musicians who are anything but model citizens. What it does mean is that we need to reflect on how we spend our time and money and invest ourselves in those activities which build our culture and society and make us better citizens.

We cannot compartmentalize our lives; #metoo has taught us that attitudes cultivated in the playground or locker rooms or dance halls follow us into all levels of social interaction.

A healthy citizenry encourages participation at all age levels and from all segments of society, creates space for diversity, rejects an us versus them polarization, values learning and personal growth over possessions or winning, and encourages dialogue and understanding. These are attitudes we start learning on the playground and continue learning them (or not) throughout life.

Re-envision your sandbox. Become a participant. Sit down and watch only long enough to catch your breath. You are never too old to learn something new. There are so many accessible and and free options in our community to learn to paint, dance, play a musical instrument, or kick-box. Volunteer for a festival. Join a community league.  All of these options are invaluable not only for your health but also for that of your community. Most of all, have fun.

Featured Image: A hike in Patagonia with the author’s daughter Sara.| Aydan Dunnigan-Vickruck