Learning to play again

Can you remember when you were last really absorbed in a task? When you lost yourself in the pleasure of carrying out one step, and then another?  Worries floated away as you just focused on the job in hand.

This is flow.

Children generally achieve flow very easily. They will arrange buttons or stones just so, poke at a hole until they can get a finger into it, unravel a whole ball of wool, peel the petals off a rose and then start on the anthers…There is such pleasure to be had!  From the physical sensations, from the colours or patterns, from the movement, from the sounds.  But also from the sense of purpose.

Often projects grow: we feel a mounting excitement as we think, “I know! I can just add a little bit more here” and we start to imagine what more we might create: the sandcastle grows and is decorated by shells and pebbles and feathers, the mud pie has sticks and flowers and berries pushed into it, the shards of ice are balanced just so to make a precarious tepee.  Gardening is very much like this: we become completely absorbed in the sensory pleasure of digging through heavy soil, pricking out seedlings, podding peas.

I often go out into the garden thinking that I will just have a little wander and see what is happening. Two hours later I have pruned the roses, raked up some leaves, divided a couple of plants, and pulled up a load of brambles and nettles creeping under the back fence.  One thing leads to another, and it is not a chore because it simply unfolds.  It’s a bit like playing.

We live in a world where our multi-sensory experience is compromised.  We have desk-jobs and drive to work, where once we would have been working under the sky, in all weathers, hearing the birds, splashing through mud, cracking frozen puddles, picking fruit, lugging around heavy equipment, being constantly exposed to colours and textures and noises and and smells.

The sky is a good place to start reconnecting with your playful side.  We can all indulge in a bit of cloud-spotting.  Some cloud-scapes are like mountain-ranges, or islands in a vast ocean.  Sometimes the sky looks like we have accidentally floated off to another planet, and find ourselves on Mars.  Why not have a little daydream about that?

Sometimes, when there is heavy cloud-cover, it looks like we are underwater and looking up to the surface of the sea, like we are divers, or whales.  Sometimes the sky is like a stage-set: on a misty day there are silhouettes of varying greys that look like paper cut-outs.

Children follow their urges when they play, and do not worry about what others think of them.  If they see a butterfly, they will follow it.  If they find a flower, they will pull off its petals and look closely at the structure inside.  This is not destructive: it is natural curiosity.

You don’t have to have an end product when you play. A week before we decorate our Christmas tree, I get all the baubles out, and just have a play with them.  I might arrange them on the carpet into rainbow colours.  I might hold them up to the light and spin them a bit.  I am forty-three.  But why not?

I was just admiring a stem of Lamprocapnos, or ‘Bleeding Heart’ (or ‘Lady’s Locket’, ‘Dutchman’s Breeches’ or ‘Lady in a Bath’. You can see why:

I thought to myself, “I’ve never looked inside. What puffs it up?” So I peeled off the pigtails, noting they also resemble a lampshade or a farthingale. I found a stiff framework beneath.

And then I saw you could pull the two halves of the heart apart. This revealed the stamens and stigma. They have a spring mechanism, like a pair of tweezers. They also look like a dinosaur’s open mouth:

Play is not pointless.  Play is curiosity and wonder and joy.  Play is the freedom to dream, and imagine, and create.

We should not stop playing the moment we hit 13.  Play is a noble art, and should be cultivated throughout life.

If you want to bring more playfulness into your life, get outside.  Follow your senses.  Investigate the way a bud attaches to a tree-branch.  Look under stones.  Stir up a pond with a stick.  Fish some pondweed out, and flick it onto the side.  You might even see a creature crawl out.  Listen.  See if you can find the bird singing to you.  Kick some leaves.  Touch some moss.  See the world anew, as if you were visiting from outer-space.

There is magic out there.  Go and find some.

I would love to hear any comments or discoveries, not matter how small.  Don’t be shy.  I’m the person who spins baubles to look at the colours they make.

My aim on this site is to share the sense of wonder I get from gardening and being outdoors. 

If you would like to join the joy, click on the ‘Follow’ button at the end of this post. You will receive an email each time I post a little pop of wonder. 

48 Comments Add yours

  1. Play is one of my favorite words. One of my wise friends uses it frequently. She talks to her husband about what they will “design” for themselves in the day they have together. And she’ll lead a meeting with the notion that we’re all here to play together, to interact and to go where the spirit goes, rather than restrain ourselves to “work.” Of course a meeting of the Board of Directors might be pretty strange if the Chairperson invited everyone to “play” during the board meeting–but what if?
    I love your point, that we can take everything apart, or experience it just for the joy of discovery. I’ll bring this idea with me as I go about the rest of today and remind myself of it tomorrow.
    Thank you!

    1. Ali says:

      I’m so pleased you liked it, Angela.
      We definitely need to be more playful at work! Think of the impact on stress levels if there was a half-hour of creative play every day. Like you say, you can build it in to whatever you are doing.

  2. In reading this, I feel you are a friend I’ve never met. I loved it when you said of gardening, “One thing leads to another, and it is not a chore because it simply unfolds. It’s a bit like playing.” My feelings exactly. I call it “playing in the dirt”, but I like how you described it much better.

    I have a bit of housekeeping to do today. Hopefully I can apply your gardening philosophy to my cleaning, letting my tasks not be a chore, but simply unfold.

    1. Ali says:

      Ah, that is so lovely, thank you!
      As you’re here, and I think you will appreciate this, I made a wonderful discovery this morning when I was topping up the bird-feeders. The water in the bird-bath was semi-frozen, but rather than having a hard crust on, it was like water jelly. I could push it in, and it was soft and gloopy, but transparent, like gel. I think it was because it had snowed. I love making new discoveries like this! Thank you for your comment, and I hope you’ll pop by again! X

  3. sevenroses says:

    you should be writing a book about all this. really. and those roses I want to pinch. they never grow in my garden, maybe because it is covered with a mesh and the sunlight is scanty. they prefer my camera.

    1. Ali says:

      Thank you! I have just finished the manuscript for a book, and have a very lovely agent preparing it to present to publishers! You are most welcome to share my roses – I will keep taking photos and blogging about them!

      1. sevenroses says:

        wow! That is marvellous news! Congratulations! this is not surprising! I have a book which was published many years ago by a publisher in my City, Bangalore and it is on Amazon called The Dance of the Bhuleshwar Brush! It is a dark comedy about the way girls had to marry the men chosen for them by their families and how they rebelled against it! what is the name of your book? Daksha

      2. pommepal says:

        Keep us informed about your book venture Ali. Is it a gardening book , or fiction? I think with your gorgeous way with words and vivid imagination a book would be a winner

      3. Ali says:

        It is a gardening book. Very like this blog with a few more stories.

      4. pommepal says:

        Sounds as though it will be a best seller

      5. Ali says:

        Aw. Thank you for your belief! 😘

  4. Ali says:

    The same name as my blog as the working title! I will look up your book… I love the title!

  5. Reblogged this on London Cottage Garden and commented:
    This is really worth reading…..

  6. I too like to make a dish of petals from dying roses but from your lovely blog I realise I could do with getting outside more. Living in the city it’s easy to be indoors far too much. Thanks for a lovely blog. Julie

    1. Ali says:

      Thank you so much, Julie. I love your blog too. 😘💞🌿

  7. You have a delightful way of writing about things which most of us gardeners just do without commenting on or really thinking about. Spinning the baubles before they go on the Christmas tree, touching the moss. Taking the time to enjoy.

    1. Ali says:

      Yes, gardeners are generally good at playing!

  8. Another lovely post. So good to keep that child inside us alive and well. I hope I never grow to old to be playful. I so love the ‘Bleeding heart’ I have the same one in my garden but never looked inside. Im still trying to work out the ‘Lady in the bath’ thing.

    1. Ali says:

      I think of it as being from when women bathed in their cotton nighties, which would billow around them, and they would emerge, dripping wet, the fabric clinging to their curves! That is my take on it, anyway!

      1. That makes sense. I just love the heart shape.

    2. Eliza Waters says:

      If you turn the ‘heart’ upside down and pull the sides apart, there is the ‘lady’ in her tub. Kids love to do this!

      1. Ah! I will give it a try tomorrow. This plant is getting even more interesting.😊

      2. Ali says:

        Of course! Love it! Thank you Eliza!

  9. Eliza Waters says:

    Wonderful that your inner child is still alive and well, Ali. I use all my senses as I walk our loop, immersing myself in the now moment, there is so much to see/hear/sense. I can lose myself entirely when gardening, look up and realize that hours have passed.

    1. Ali says:

      That’s it exactly Eliza. ❤️

  10. What a lovely lively beautiful post!

    1. Ali says:

      Thank you. 🙏

  11. Emma Cownie says:

    Lovely post. Adults just find different ways of playing, happy ones do anyway. I paint.

    1. Ali says:

      Yes, and your paintings ooze ease and creative exuberance. They have this incredible balance of masterful control with exploration and playfulness.

  12. pommepal says:

    Just talking about this at art group today. Why do we find it so hard to just play, why must we make excuses to play, why do we think to ourselves “I should be doing something useful”. Our group are all retired and over 65 and we love our weekly play at art. Good for the soul. Life can certainly be too serious.

  13. Julieanne says:

    I often say I like to ‘play with my plants’, which is how I see gardening. It’s my favourite thing, and it is quite absorbing and always lifts my spirits. I’m 50, and I still like to play 🙂

    Such a lovely, thoughtful post.

    1. Ali says:

      I think you get a resurgence of play once you reach 40 or 50, perhaps peaking to coincide with grandchildren? Or maybe it is when you get a better work-life balance, or better outlook on life??

  14. What a lovely post Ali.

    I’m all for not being a grown-up. It sucks!

    1. Ali says:

      It’s true, there is not enough fun in adult life. We need to resurrect it!

  15. Heyjude says:

    I get what you say about gardening, now how do I make that work with housework?

    1. Ali says:

      That’s where mindfulness comes in! I remember reading about how to make your least favourite repetitive task less tedious. For me it was putting away dishes. So you focus on the sensory properties of the bowls and plates, where any chips of scratches came from, and how these objects serve you and your family, all the meals you have shared using them, how much harder life would be without them… It kind of works!

  16. Ali, I love this post. This is something I have really been working on: play. Believe it or not, I actually wrote an entire philosophy paper on play a few years ago and delivered it at a conference. Your post is a happy and helpful reminder of some ideas that mean so much to me right now. Thank you.

    1. Ali says:

      I would like be to read that paper!

  17. griffin says:

    Has anyone ever shown you the rabbit in a larkspur flower?

    1. Ali says:

      No…now I’m intrigued!

  18. Maggie Frost says:

    Alison, I love your blog. I am like-minded when it comes to gardening, being outside and playing. I literally lose myself in my gardens, surrounded by birdsongs, the smells of the garden, even the compost area. Thank you so much for these soulful, mindful musings. Garden on! Play on!

    1. That is lovely to hear, Maggie, thank you! Gardening is the best therapy and an endless source of interest, isn’t it? It is lovely to have you here to share these musings.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s