It comes to us as naturally as movement. It spans culture and history and can also be observed in the animal kingdom. It aids in physical and cognitive development and strengthens social ties. Yet as we grow older, play can often be neglected or ignored altogether. Adults are criticized if they seem to be having “too much fun.”
Play is considered frivolous and immature. It seems it is discouraged at increasingly younger ages, as schools emphasize test scores and academic rigor over fun and creativity. Students experience classroom pressure, peer pressure, and the stress of busy lifestyles. Recreation, unless conducted on an official athletic team, is deemed less essential, and often abandoned for more achievement-focused pursuits.
Play should not become another casualty of our fast-paced and ambition-driven society. It has tremendous value at all ages, from infants to elderly. When working with youth, using play is an especially important tool. It allows teens opportunities to relax, cooperate with one another, communicate, and express themselves. Play has the power to inspire and invigorate our minds, drawing us closer to God and to one another.
Significance of Play
A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones. -Proverbs 17:22
“Play” has various definitions, depending on context, but for present purposes, it can best be described as found in one of the Oxford renderings: “activity engaged in for enjoyment or recreation.” This might make it seem like something bereft of deeper meaning or value. However, recreational activities can have immense impact on mental and psychological development.
Early childhood learning centers are full of materials for kids to explore and play with, boosting curiosity and offering physical and cognitive stimulation. Playgrounds offer a means to challenge and exert little bodies while burning off energy and building muscle. Kids at play practice problem-solving skills and discover flexibility, while beginning to work with others.
None of that needs to stop when classroom content becomes advanced and plastic kitchen sets lose their luster. Older students can and should be given opportunity to play and can benefit from it in many of the same ways. Their experiences will look different, of course, but middle and high schoolers can still gain social and intellectual skills by engaging in play-like activities.
Games, team challenges, and skits enhance interest and involvement in older kids, and can boost understanding and memory. Recreational activities should be encouraged in homes, schools, and churches, and can benefit all ages and stages of people. How, then, can we best use the God-given blessing of play?
Making it Meaningful
There are many ways that we can incorporate play in working with youth. Games and structured exercises can help communicate Biblical truths and promote spiritual growth. It is also worth noting that sometimes allowing for flexible “free play” is a great way to help students relax and enjoy the company of others.
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven…
4 a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance… (Ecclesiastes 3:1,4)
We want to support a balance environment for teens in the church. There are certainly times that require sincerity and seriousness. When we instruct students in the Catechism, participate in worship services, or discuss deep doctrinal issues, we honor a sense of reverence. However, maintaining a constant academic emphasis while ignoring the physical and social risks developing in students a level of boredom or distaste for church. We want to impress upon them that there is a time to be serious, but there is also a time to laugh.
As we consider how to facilitate that time for laughter, it is also essential to recognize the value of relationships, and to realize that lighthearted activity adds to those, as well. Placing youth in groups for team-building exercises, skits, or creative challenges allows them to bond and get to know one another. Events should include opportunities for such activities. Games are also useful in illustrating or adding to a devotional message. Bible studies can include object lessons or opening drills that involve play. Teens can also act out stories with role play, pantomime, “still life frames”, or even puppets. When youth can engage in a lesson, it becomes more memorable and meaningful.
For some events or activities, less structure is beneficial. Lock-ins, pizza nights, or holiday parties should have some basic agenda, but should also allow for teens to relax and enjoy one another’s company. “Play” for them might include board games or charades, or it might be open and simple, offering freedom to choose their own adventure, so to speak. After all, even adults benefit from play. We enjoy games and activities just as much as any age, appreciating opportunities to release pressure and let go of concerns for a time. As we develop programs and events, it can be helpful for us and our students to sometimes join in and laugh right alongside them.
God Gives us Play
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then they said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
3 The Lord has done great things for us;
we are glad. -Psalm 126:2-3
As children of the creator of the universe, we have been blessed with a sense of creativity. God gives us joy, and we can praise Him with our laughter and our delight. We can truly enjoy the blessings He has granted us, using mirth to encourage and engage others. Laughter is visible throughout the Bible, as well as a sense of joy in the Lord’s presence. Jesus even demonstrates a sense of the positives of play. He spent time with a variety of people and enjoyed the company of friends, so much so He was criticized as a “glutton and a drunkard” (Matthew 11:19). For adults, play can offer a rejuvenating reminder that we are God’s children, not childish, but childlike in our faith.
The Bottom Line
Play is a powerful tool in teaching and engaging with youth. It is also a gift that we should take time to enjoy as adults. Light-hearted fun reminds us that although life is difficult, joy comes in the morning. Christians should reflect God’s joy in their ability to laugh and find blessing in all things.
In fact, Luther was an advocate of serving God with mirth, recognizing the joy that came from being justified and having peace in Christ Jesus. After struggling with the concept of a wrathful God, understanding the power of grace allowed him relief and rest in the Lord’s love. He often engaged in merry jokes and enjoyed the liberty of being a forgiven son of God. We, too, ought to celebrate the beauty of His mercy and presence. Then we, along with King David, can praise the Lord and sing…
You make known to me the path of life;
in your presence there is fullness of joy;
at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. -Psalm 16:11
Have you neglected the joy of recreation? It’s never too late to get started… let’s play!