the web site of Austin-based writer Eileen Mcginnis.


a blog about caregivers + creators throughout history.


All Work, No Play

Recently, I ordered a dress from a company that makes clothes for mothers of young, active kids. The idea being that we should have a stylish but comfortable alternative to athleisure on the playground. (I, for one, bought the dress for work and continue to defiantly look like a slob when out and about with my child.)

The package arrived with a couple of lollipops enclosed, along with this quote from beloved children’s author Roald Dahl:

When you grow up & have children of your own, do please remember something important. A stodgy parent is no fun at all! What a child wants & deserves is a parent who is sparky!
— Roald Dahl

The quote was meant to be whimsical and inspirational, in keeping with the company’s brand. But it landed on me like a rebuke. A thought crossed my mind that I never thought would surface in the brain of someone who had, as a young reader, cherished Matilda and James and the Giant Peach:

“F— you, Roald Dahl.”

Sure, I consider myself a pretty fun parent, usually able to immerse myself in the worlds that children create. Kids older than my son tend to ‘adopt’ me on the playground or at parties, often because I’m game for listening to their stories and playing hide-and-seek or whatever. One seven-year-old girl whom I met at an indoor play center even wanted to schedule another play date with me for later that week…

The author and her son on the playground.

The author and her son on the playground.

Nonetheless, I’m also harried and tired, hardly ‘sparky.’ Switching gears suddenly from washing dishes to dancing a jig, that takes effort, man. It’s work. The message of quote is not really “Hey, parent, enjoy yourself, because play is good for you, too.” Instead, it read to me like “Your children are your tiny overlords and every need and want you have should be subordinated to theirs.”

Last month, I published a post about the Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson’s relationship with his stepson Lloyd Osbourne. An act of play – sitting down with Lloyd to paint one aimless afternoon – helped to generate the idea for one of RSL’s most famous adventure stories, Treasure Island.

In the post, I wrote about the rarity of that experience, of truly being at play. How, more often, play with children can feel boring, repetitive, even onerous.

Since then, I found myself wanting to say more about play for adults (not in a sexual sense, just to be clear!). Parents supposedly have this grand opportunity to rediscover the joy and benefits of play when engaging with their kids. And play is important for adults, essential to our well-being and connectedness. It’s also crucial for fostering creativity of all kinds.

But just because we play daily with our children doesn’t mean that we are meeting our own needs for play, independent of theirs. We can be surrounded by an abundance of play in our homes while still feeling deprived of play ourselves. Moving your body and engaging in rough-and-tumble social play are certainly valuable kinds of play at any age, but these are not the only kinds of play that can sustain us as adults.

If I stopped to think, though, about what kinds of play I should incorporate into my life – what is it that’s missing exactly? – I found myself at a loss. Clearly, I needed a play guru.

So, I turned to a TED talk by Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute of Play.

What is the science of play? Why do we – and other animals – engage in play? How might these findings help an almost-forty-year-old adult rediscover how to play?

Brown admits that studies of play are not exactly well funded, but we do know that “Nothing lights up the brain like play.” And that play deprivation leads to abnormal brain development (Brown began his career in play research through the case of Charles Whitman, the infamous UT Tower sniper, who, according to Brown, had experienced severe play deprivation).

Brown discusses these photos by German photographer Norbert Rosing of a polar bear unexpectedly at play with sled dogs in Manitoba, Canada.

Brown discusses these photos by German photographer Norbert Rosing of a polar bear unexpectedly at play with sled dogs in Manitoba, Canada.

His talk also challenges the idea that play predominantly evolved as a rehearsal for adult behavior, which would suggest that adults don’t need to play. Instead, he sees play more as a biological need, like sleep and dreams – an element that is key to public health. And perhaps the key to rejuvenating communities, since social play builds trust within a group.

Brown insists that play is crucial for adults: “Try and imagine a culture or a life, adult or otherwise without play. And the thing that's so unique about our species is that we're really designed to play through our whole lifetime.”

My husband and I gravitate towards different kinds of play with or alongside our son. Sol assembles elaborate geometric shapes and structures with MagnaTiles; he also has an uncanny ability to get maximum spin on various objects around the house. According to Brown’s loose taxonomy of play, this constitutes object play – manipulating objects, strengthening that hand-to-brain connection. It’s not surprising, then, to learn that my husband was a math major in college, and that he works as a computer scientist.

On the other hand, as the writer in the family, I gravitate toward pretend play and storytelling or narrative play. Constructing imaginary worlds with our son. Collaborating on bedtime stories about pirates or writing songs about bodily functions.

Tell me how you play, and I’ll tell you who you are.

So, there are clues in our present, but especially in our past. Brown advocates taking our play histories – the what, where, and how of our experiences of play as children. He instructs us to

…explore backwards as far as you can go the most clear, joyful, playful image that you have, whether it’s a toy, on a birthday or on a vacation. And begin to build from the emotion of that into how that connects with your life now.

It was initially hard for me to clear through the fog of books, books, books that are my most powerful memory of leisure time as a child (and even as a pre-parent adult). But when I did, a few memories emerged:

  • Summers at my grandparents’ modest vacation house in the Pocono Mountains, playing in a fort by the driveway, exploring the nearby lake with my two older male cousins, and generally getting muddy.

  • Watching PBS cooking shows with my mom on summer breaks, then heading outside to my Smurfs play table to make my own inedible concoctions from dirt, rocks, and the like.

  • An empty refrigerator box that became my basement refuge. I would design and rearrange the space for hours of pretend play, alone or with a friend.

  • Drawing, making little books and booklets, in the den while my dad watched TV.

Brown doesn’t give us a key to translating our play histories into concrete actions, but I decided on two takeaways:

  • Get myself a sketchbook and some art supplies for impromptu doodling or artwork.

  • Go outside and get dirty. Bring more hikes and nature and outdoor exploration into my family’s weekends, especially before our 100-degree Central Texas summer hits.

In the exercise of taking my play history, though, I had another realization: my relationship with my dad was at the core of my earliest childhood memories of play. In winter, building structures and people out of packed snow; in summer, washing the cars in the driveway or playing “Jack and Jill” as we tumbled down the hill in our side yard; in fall, constructing an elaborate Halloween display; on rainy days in spring, building DUPLOs or LEGOs.

So, as I brainstormed about how to bring play into my adult life, I was reminded of how meaningful the play I do with my son is, even if that play might also be work.

Excavating the past had brought me full circle to that Roald Dahl quote: kids deserve adult caregivers who play attentively, creatively with them. But while the quote, repurposed as branding material, had felt hollow, remembering what it was like to play with an engaged parent left me truly inspired.

That’s a sappy way to end, though, so here’s one last, less tidy point:

Tell me your gender, and I’ll tell you how – and how much – you play.

In Mothers and Daughters of Invention, Autumn Stanley’s tome on female inventors through history, she makes an interesting observation about gender and play:

Among the many things not equal for the two sexes in modern Western culture are three pertinent here: freedom to explore the physical environment, freedom to engage in rough-and-tumble play, and free time to play in general. Females have less of all three than males. This is true for little girls as well as adult women…. Indeed, even among other primates the females probably have less time for play…. The first two of these freedoms are sometimes thought to influence the development of spatial-visualization ability, and if so could affect some kinds of inventive capacity, as well as inventive opportunity….

Stanley goes on to chronicle numerous female inventors, speculating that freedom for this kind of exploratory, physical play was a common thread in many of their childhoods.

It’s “inventive opportunity,” though, that I want to highlight here. We cannot produce creative work – whether visual arts or mechanical inventions – without this kind of freewheeling, unrestricted play. But the extra burdens placed on mothers – the “second shift” of household duties and maternal obligations – might limit such occasions for spontaneity and fun that lead to new ideas.

In Brown’s talk, he mentions that the attunement of a caregiver, often a mother, is the infant’s first experience of play. It sets the stage for all of the complex forms of play to follow. And yet, as we’ve structured Western society, the caregiver herself often loses out on her own opportunities for play. She has fewer occasions to, as Brown puts it when defining play, “explore the possible.” 

The Metamorphoses of Maria Sybilla Merian

Scrappiness: Joan Lyons, Beulah Henry, and Making Art from Scarcity