Periodically in youth group we hold what we call “fun nights,” where there is no lesson or agenda. We simply use our time together to play. Sometimes we ask the youth bring games from home, and watch as groups form around Apples to Apples, Cranium or some other favorite. Other times we will divide up into teams for a bunch of relays, and other times we will play one big game together.
Last Spring, on one of the final nights of youth group before the end of the school year, we had a fun night scheduled, but several of our plans fell through. The weather was beautiful, so I asked the group if there was a game they wanted to play together outside. The answer came quickly, “Capture the Flag!” Game on!
I sent them outside with the other leaders while I went into the supply closet to grab a couple of the strips of cloth we use as blindfolds to be the flags. By the time I arrived outside it had been decided to combine the middle school and high school groups, who typically meet separately, and play girls against the boys.
I served as an official, which gave me opportunity to walk around the property and watch what was happening. There was group of girls on the far end of the playing field strategizing where to put their flag. At the other end a group of guys was huddled planning how they would find and retrieve the girls’ flag. It was then, I noticed something. Both the group of girls and the group of guys consisted of high school and middle school students. They were working together.
As the evening progressed, some gave up on Capture the Flag and went to the playground. Some were swinging on the swings while others climbed the jungle gym. There was quite a bit of chatting and laughter and just enjoying one another. Off in the distance, presumably still playing the game, I saw several of our more energetic youth chasing each other on our massive property. Near the boys’ flag, which had been discovered, there was another group teasing one another with plans and strategies. Another group just stood on top of a dirt pile talking. I kept an eye on them worried a game of King of the Hill would break out. The mixing was so good it was difficult to tell the high school and middle students apart. It was a great night of youth group – one no lesson could have accomplished.
Watching them play, and swing, and climb, and talk, and laugh together, I began to rethink fun nights. We had predominately used them when we expected low attendance, like a Sunday night before a Monday off from school. They were a draw, and a way of giving the leaders a break every so often.
But play is more than a break from the routine. It is important. That night of Capture the Flag, relationships were built, people got to know one another, and everyone had fun. We needed to do that more often. So this year I intentionally added fun nights to this year’s schedule. They became part of what we do.
One night we set up three Nintendo Wii’s each with a different game – Pictionary, a driving game, and Just Dance. Just Dance made everyone was nervous at first, because it requires the players to dance, and many of us were afraid of looking silly. Before long though, we had a large group of youth and leaders dancing together. The game only supports four players, but that didn’t stop eight or ten from joining in the fun! It was another great night of youth group, bringing people together in ways no lesson could have.
Then, one Sunday night a couple of months ago, I supervised the Middle School youth as we did this:
This is a “Harlem Shake” video. They were very popular for a couple of weeks earlier this year.
Something happens when we play together. We make ourselves vulnerable, by dancing to a video game or making a crazy video. Play gives us opportunity to connect with people with whom we might not otherwise spend a lot of time, like a 17-year-old high school senior teaching a 12-year-old sixth grader the intricacies of Capture the Flag strategy. Play has great value in youth ministry, but I believe it can go far beyond that.
I am increasingly convinced that play is a gift from God. It is not just for fun nights at youth group, but for all of us – from the nursery to the retirement home, from the physically gifted to the clumsy. God, our creator, has given us the gift of play to keep us mentally strong, adaptable, and healthy; and bringing us together in organizations and societies.
Play is different from rest
Last Sunday we began this series we’re calling The Rest of Life talking about rest. We contrasted the story of Creation which contains God’s pattern of days of work and nights of rest, to our expectations to be busy 24 / 7. Our tendency, we noted, is to go, go, go – from one thing to the next, keeping all the balls in the air, and all the plates spinning, running to maintain another task without enjoying what we have accomplished. We talked about how God’s rest involved appreciating his work, enjoying it, and saying it was good. We said we ought to enter into that pattern with him – times of work followed by times of stopping to appreciate and enjoy what we have done.
Play is different. Play has no secondary purpose. It is all about having fun. It is all about the joy. There’s no looking back at our work in play, as in rest. Play is an entity all its own. In The Rest of Life, Ben Witherington defines play as “an activity that is an end in itself, not merely a means to an end, and it generates its own joy just in the play” (Witherington 63).
This means practice is not play. Neither is conditioning. Your exercise class at the Y is not play, neither is the dance lesson you take. All of those have a secondary goal – to get you into shape, to make your playing better, or to get a team to work together to improve performance.
Play is game day. Play is diving into a pile of leaves, for no apparent reason. Play is sitting at the table for a game of Pinochle after you have learned the rules. Play is kneeling on the floor surrounded by Barbies and creating a scene for them to act out. Play is building with blocks, throwing the ball around with your kids, splashing in the pool, and yelling “Fore!” before your golf ball hits a house. Play is Angry Birds and Words With Friends. Play is Capture the Flag and swinging on the swings.
Play is not learning to dance, but dancing. Play is not practicing your scales or rehearsing that piece, but making music. Play is not juggling during a sermon to make a point, but juggling in your office because it’s fun.
Play has no agenda other than the joy of play. Whether it is the Rockies taking on the Padres later this afternoon in San Diego, or our church softball team behind Bear Creek Elementary losing to the young guys in the orange shirts who are way too good to be playing Y-league softball, play has no other purpose than the enjoyment of the participants and spectators, if there are any. Sure, you might invite the Jones’ over to play Scrabble so you can get to know them better, but the game is still just the game, and you are playing.
Some social scientists have begun to take play quite seriously, and they are learning that play matters. They are finding connections between our “play history” and other aptitudes like social skills, emotional health, and problem solving. How we play, what we play, and how often we play, are good predictors of other things we do well. Play is more than a distraction from more important things. It is vital to our mental and social health.
A sermon on play?
I want to confess, though, it is a little difficult to do a sermon on play. Rest, by contrast, was fairly easy. Rest is mandated by one the Ten Commandments, talked about throughout the Old Testament, and even addressed by Jesus. Nowhere though, do we find a commandment reading, “Thou shalt play.” There is no section of the Bible devoted to play, no parables, no prophecies of a day of play to come. The scriptural evidence for play is slim.
The best I can find are passing mentions of play, like a verse in Genesis telling us Sarah became jealous of Hagar while watching Hagar playing with Ishmael, the son Hagar had borne for Abraham. We also read about David playing music to soothe King Saul, and dancing with joy when the Ark of the Covenant is returned. The psalms are also filled with references to music being played.
Other than that though, there really isn’t much. Nowhere does the Bible say Jesus and the disciples had a pick up game of basketball on the streets of Galilee. The best we get is a mention of Jesus taking the disciples away on what appears to be a brief vacation, going to people’s homes for dinner and just enjoying their company, and having what appears to be a playful attitude in the stories he told and his interactions with people he met along the way.
Today’s New Testament lesson is a sermon illustration drawn from sports. The author of Hebrews uses the then familiar image of a race, a track event, to describe the life of faith. He mentions being surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, which would be like the spectators in the stands. He writes about laying aside every weight and sin that clings so closely, like the runners who used to take off their clothes and run naked. He coaches the faithful to keep their eyes fixed on Jesus, like a runner would think of the prize received after crossing the finish line.
All of this is to say, the Bible is aware of play, and even sports, but there is no direct mandate to play, no advice on playing. All we have are a few casual mentions.
Our best evidence for a theology of play is anecdotal. For example, we know human beings throughout the centuries have played – from the ancient Olympics to the modern, from some guys in Scotland in the 15th century hitting a little white ball into a hole to the Masters crowing a champion today, from Honus Wagner to Troy Tulowitzki. There has always been play. As one author puts it, we appear to be hardwired for play (Keil). But we are not the only ones who play.
We also see play in the animal kingdom. Our dogs ask us to play. Every dog owner knows that look, called “play posture,” when your dog is asking you to throw the ball, or to chase them. We have seen cats play, dolphins play, bears play, and, I read this week there is evidence that even rats play.
There was a time when science dismissed the idea of animals playing. What looked like play in animals, they would say, was actually a rehearsing of a behavior needed in nature. In recent years though, the conventional wisdom has shifted.
For instance, an experiment was done depriving cats of play throughout their development to adulthood. Many scientists expected the cats would then be less proficient hunters, having not practiced the skills of chasing and pouncing most cats do when “playing.” What they found instead was that the play-deprived cats were able to hunt just as well as those who had played throughout their lives. The difference had nothing to do with hunting. What the play-deprived cats lacked was social skills.
Another author notes this about bears, “Bears that play more survive longer. It’s not the bears that learn how to fish better. It’s the ones that play more” (Keil). The scientific community is becoming increasingly convinced that natural selection has chosen play for survival, which means it matters. We might instead say, when God created us in his image, he gave us the gift of play, which again means that play matters.
Polar Bear and dogs
Dr. Stuart Brown, whom I mentioned earlier, founder of the National Institute for Play (who knew?) is one of the scientists making a serious study of play. In his TED Talk, and on his website, Brown shares the story of Norbert Rosing, a German nature photographer who frequently contributes his work to National Geographic. Rosing was in Manitoba, near the Hudson Bay preparing to take pictures of polar bears, one of his specialties. One evening, while waiting for the ice to freeze so the bears could cross the bay and do their hunting, Rosing began to photograph his dogs, two huskies he had tethered to a stake in the yard.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, a 1,200 pound wild, male polar bear appeared. It had what Brown calls a predatory gaze – that fixed stare an animal gets when they are on the hunt. Norbert, ever the photographer, kept snapping pictures even as he waited for the bear to attack one, if not both, of his dogs.
Examining this picture, Dr. Brown notices something. The husky on the right, who happens to be the female, is in a “play posture,” bowing at the front, with her tail up and wagging. She is, in essence, inviting the bear to play.
The polar bear responds by making an apparently threatening gesture, but again Brown notes his claws and teeth are not exposed. This is not a threat. This is something else. Again, Brown calls attention to the dog. She has not relented. She is still ready to play.
Finally, the polar bear seems to pick up on the signs, and before long the scene changes. The bear and the dog engaged in what Brown calls a ballet. He notes the curved lines of their bodies. They are not tense, tightened up, ready to strike. The polar bear has instead accepted the husky’s invitation to play.
At some point in their playing, Rosing snaps a picture to the polar bear with the dog’s neck in his mouth. About this picture Brown writes: “Look closely at this: The throat of the husky is open to the bite of the polar bear, the bear’s eyes are half closed, he is in a different state of being. The signals of play that the husky sent to the bear have produced mutual bliss…they have overcome the bear’s predatory urges…all produced by the unmistakable language of play” (“Why Didn’t the Wild Polar Bear Eat the Husky?”). The bear is no longer thinking about his need to eat. He is instead in the moment, in the game.
Their playing, Rosing reports, lasted for about 20 minutes until both laid down, side by side, panting happily. Brown calls their dance, “a marvelous example of how a differential in power can be overridden by a process of nature that’s within all of us” (Brown). This is the power of play.
A bond had been created by accepting an invitation to play. The bond continued for some time. According to Rosing the bear returned every night for two weeks to play with the husky. After two weeks the bay froze and the polar bear was off to hunt.
Odd friends, these two. All because of their willingness to play. Play, Dr. Brown says, brings us into an altered state of bliss. It brings us together in ways nothing else can, like a bear and a dog, a high school senior and a sixth grader, an empty nester and an elementary school student. At the ball park, in our children, and wherever we experience play, we see people being brought together through the joy of play. So why don’t we play more?
Steve Keil, arguing for a revolution of play in the nation of Bulgaria, whom he says after 45 years under communist rule has inherited a “serious meme,” reports that some who have seen him encouraging his children and other children to play have said this to him:
“I’ve been told…that we shouldn’t let our kids play so much because life is serious, and we need to train them for the seriousness of life.”
I would say we have that sentiment backwards. Instead of preparing children for the seriousness of life by making them serious, we would do a far better job of preparing them for seriousness by developing their, and our, gifts of play.
We do this well for younger children. We insert recess, art, and music into the schedule of elementary school students. But as they grow those opportunities become more optional and less available. By middle school our students are still taking physical education, but music and art are electives, mostly for those who show an aptitude toward those things. Then sometime in high school, a student can go through an entire day with no physical education, music, or art classes. No opportunity to play unless they are fortunate enough to have a teacher who provides it.
We perpetuate an unwritten expectation that we must grow out of our need to play. By the time we grow to adulthood there is little time for it. It is seen as frivolous, useless, non-productive, the stuff of childhood. Play gets in the way of what really matters, our work. That is patently untrue.
Some employers, especially those in the creative arts, have noted an increase in productivity when they build playtime into their daily schedules. Some have designed some pretty incredible workspaces. Most offices are sterile and free from distraction from the work we need to do. Pixar, the creators of Toy Story and Finding Nemo, wanting to encourage creativity did away with cubicles and built these little homes for their office spaces. In the Google offices in Zurich you don’t need an elevator to go downstairs to the cafeteria, you can take the slide. The employers have found this opportunities for play increase their employees problem solving skills and creativity.
Maintaining our childlike qualities
I want to teach you a word this morning – neoteny. Neoteny describes a species’ retention of immature qualities into adulthood. Can you guess what the most neotenous species on the planet is? Homo sapiens, the human being.
Our ability to play is not a distraction. It is a gift we ought not suppress. We ought not grow out of it. We need to embrace it as a gift from God.
Ben Witherington puts it well:
Every Christian needs to venture forth into play so there is at least some time in the week that is not a mere means to some other end. This is because in the Kingdom nothing will be a mere means to an end; rather, we will have arrived at the goal and end of all things where we will enjoy where we are, what we are doing, and indeed enjoy God forever. We will be caught up in love and wonder and praise in the eternal moment. It is thus right to seize and relish those moments of playful joy and joyful play now, as previews of coming attractions (Witherington 63).
Don’t squander the gift. Play on!
Brown, Stuart. “Stuart Brown: Play Is More than Fun.” TED: Ideas Worth Spreading. N.p., May 2008. Web. 12 Apr. 2013. <http://www.ted.com/talks/stuart_brown_says_play_is_more_than_fun_it_s_vital.html>.
Keil, Steve. “Steve Keil: A Manifesto for Play, for Bulgaria and beyond.” TED: Ideas Worth Spreading. N.p., Jan. 2011. Web. 12 Apr. 2013. <http://www.ted.com/talks/steve_keil_a_manifesto_for_play_for_bulgaria_and_beyond.html>.
“Why Didn’t the Wild Polar Bear Eat the Husky?” The National Institute for Play. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Apr. 2013. <http://www.nifplay.org/polar-husky.html>.
Witherington, Ben. The Rest of Life: Rest, Play, Eating, Studying, Sex from a Kingdom Perspective. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 2012. Print.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotations of Scripture are from the New Revised Standard Version available online at http://bible.oremus.org.