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Don't Stop Playing

Last April, as a college senior at 21 years old, I left my on-campus apartment and went down the street to a public park. This park was the scene of many nighttime runs and outdoor workouts over the course of my final year in school. It featured a full-sized grass soccer field off to one side, a basketball court, and a playground. I loved coming here, because it was quiet, because the stars above would be out in full display at night, and most importantly, because it was open 24/7 and it was free. But this night, I didn’t go to run. I didn’t go to do a workout. I simply went to swing on the swings. I swung, giddy as can be, for about 20 minutes. My hips hurt afterwards, as is what happens when you get old, but I left the park full of joy. For those 20 minutes, I had no worries and no cares in the world.

Something that has always resonated with me is never letting go of your inner child and never feeling like you are “too old” to do something or that you “can’t” do something because of your status or position in life. When we are young, all that matters to us is when we can eat our favorite snack or do our favorite activity. Life is stress-free and infinitely more enjoyable. I never understood those people who lose this idea as they age or even look down upon people who don’t “grow up” according to their idea of what “growing up” is. I am not an expert in psychology, but I believe that when people play more, they are happier and healthier, and lead better lives. Science backs this up. I use the term “play” rather broadly here. In my view, “play” is not just strictly playing games or doing an activity, but it expands to expressing your creativity and imagination, enjoying books or other forms of media that may be aimed at younger audiences, really anything that puts you in a child-like mindset of simplicity and excitement. Pick up your favorite Magic Treehouse book again. Run down to the dollar store and grab a set of fresh sidewalk chalk and spend a sunny afternoon drawing on your driveway. Pick up a box of those gummies shaped like cartoon characters at the store (my favorite were the Scooby-Doo ones). You never grow out of nostalgia. Make frequent use of it.

One of the more prominent qualities in children is their seemingly innate curiosity and their drive to discover things. While this can be troublesome when they’re searching for the cookie jar, it’s one of the greatest traits that humans possess and unfortunately it is something that gets pushed to the back as we get older. As our careers, our personal lives, and eventually our families become a bigger part of our lives, it seems we lose that curiosity. Our day-to-day lives become more autopiloted and we lose that wonder and excitement of the world around us. The Portuguese author Jose Saramago wrote “old age starts where curiosity ends,” and I can’t help but agree. I, personally, am a self-proclaimed nerd. I love to learn and discover new things, and I feel it is so important to keep our brains actively engaged. I see it as a “if the engine isn’t used, it corrodes” kind of deal. Some studies have shown that lifelong learning has positive effects on mental health and can reduce cognitive decline. It is never too late to start a new educational journey. Always wanted to learn a new language? There are tons of free programs to help you do that. Think juggling is cool? Pick up some balls and challenge yourself to become a master! Just want to explore in nature and discover different types of plants and animals? Go for it. The more we engage our brains and continue to push our intellects further, the better off we will be in the present and in the future ahead.

A final trait of childhood that us grown folk should tap into more would be the ability to appreciate the little things in life. I’ve said before, my motto in life is “The little things make up the big things.” Happiness and success and prosperity does not come as one big lump sum, but rather in increments. Being able to appreciate those small bits and pieces is what builds up into those big things. For an example of what I mean, this story written by a mother about her son and a pack of straws from the dollar store is perfect. Going back to what I said earlier, as children we have vastly different priorities and perspectives on life. The issues and problems we see as adults don’t register to children, and I would argue that the majority of those issues we see are not truly issues. A ripped couch cushion or a spaghetti sauce splatter on the wall are inconveniences for sure, but problems? I think not. Too many times, people find the little things that bring about a negative feeling rather than the other way around. Minor imperfections are not the end of the world, nor should they be the cause for a loss of joy.

At the end of the day, time only moves in one direction. It is fate that we shall age and grow old. But who says getting older means you must give up what made being young so special? If anything, the goal should be to retain as much of your youthful self as possible while still being a responsible adult. We work, we maintain homes, we pay bills and we have responsibilities, which can be both overwhelming and stressful. We also have an intrinsic desire to play, to have fun, to laugh, to enjoy. Don’t be afraid or ashamed to embrace that. It is, after all, what makes us human. Let yourself be yourself, as raw and as natural as can be. We learn and develop coping mechanisms over time, and we rely on different outlets to help relieve us of stress. But sometimes, there are no techniques or tricks to bring us back to a place of happiness. Sometimes, you need to travel back in time and reconnect with young you. Sometimes, you just need to go swing on the swings.