When Play is More Than Play

By Ian Anderson

This morning my son came into the living room and, without a word, began to retrieve the Lego blocks he’d put together the day before. For several minutes he searched, snapped pieces here and there, and laid his buildings and vehicles on the carpet in a very specific order.

Later, I made the mistake of picking them up and placing them in the toy bin; this evoked tears. Even though I hadn’t broken anything, he was sure he’d have to redo what he’d already done.

“If you’re not playing with them right now, they need to be put away,” I told him.

He still wasn’t happy. All that effort — for nothing. He didn’t say it, but he didn’t have to say it out loud because his eyes shot it at me.

I assured him his time wasn’t wasted. He finally moved on.

The summer allows me more time to watch and join my boys in their games, and as I looked over recent Lego developments, I realized what exactly it is they are drawn to: world-building.

Whether they’re acting out the latest drama — “Let’s play ninjas!” “We’re driving to college!” — or constructing boats or forts, they are using their imaginations to feed their creative drives with the worlds swirling in their minds.

It was Tolkien, the maker of Middle Earth and Hobbits, who wrote that world-building is what he did when he wrote, and what we all want to do because that’s how we were made — to create.

In Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water she writes about her young son’s intense feelings about his blocks. When they fell over, he would become fiercely angry and cry. Watching secretly, L’Engle realized that what she was observing in her son was a mirror version of what adults go through when their efforts fail.

Because we act from a deepness within when we do our best work, it’s natural to let anger bubble up when it all comes apart. And it begins at childhood once we are able to create anything, be it blocks, crayons, or story.

Perhaps I should have let the Lego city stand a bit longer. It’s clear that my son, like children in general, plays with a seriousness I should appreciate because he’s practicing for larger play. When he’s grown and he’s chosen the kind of work he will do, he will find deep joy in it when he uses his creativity to its fullest.

And for any of us our joy in work comes when we do the same, and our creative bent turns work back to play; it was this that was intended for us from the beginning.

Ian Anderson is a teacher, a husband, and a dad. He lives with his family in Central Kansas. Occasionally, he tweets here: @ian_writes.

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