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Time to Play, Together

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by Matt Saunders

If there is a silver lining to our current situation of sheltering-in-place, it’s that the rhythm of our family schedule has suddenly become less frantic. We’re not rushing around town, taxiing our kids to volleyball and baseball practices, youth group meet-ups, or after-school activities. We’re getting more face-to-face time, but also more screen time, which, I admit, seems great in the moment but sometimes doesn’t feel super wonderful at the end of the day.
I get more satisfaction from the increased face-to-face activities that we’re doing as a family. Since spring break, when we started social distancing, our family has completed three jigsaw puzzles, played several board games, and, to my daughter’s delight, made some Bob Ross-inspired paintings together. No mistakes here, friends, just “happy little accidents!”
I’m a big proponent of play! Many of us have a deep-down craving for playful interactions. We are attracted to playful things (toys, puzzles, and April Fools’ pranks), playful animals (otters, dolphins, and monkeys), and playful people (comedians, magicians, and game masters). I believe that playful interactions tap into a few things that are true about being human. We want to grow, we want challenge, and we want shared experiences. 
A big part of growing up is roleplaying real or imagined scenarios (from doing fire drills at school to battling orcs in Dungeons & Dragons games) in order to try out new identities and practice ways of reacting under various circumstances. 
We get hooked by challenges that increasingly match our strengthening abilities. Activities like this put us into what is called a “Flow” state¹. Games and apps are really good at doing this, and that’s why we can get caught up playing them while losing track of time and forgetting to eat. 
We go on vacations, watch movies together, and have game nights because we want to create shared experiences. They result in shared memories and points of conversation for the future. Through a variety of methods, play becomes the vehicle with which we realize our best selves. 
Being playful points to the theological reality that humans are created in the Image of God (Genesis 1:26-27). As God has been revealed throughout scripture as being triune (Father, Son, and Spirit), we begin to recognize that the essence of the Divine is relational. Similarly, as image-bearers of the Divine, we are wired to be relational.
When we engage in playful activities with each other, we participate in this relational essence of God. Play is spiritual.
As my good friend, Dr. Mark Hayse, Director of the Center for Games and Learning at MidAmerica Nazarene University, says, “Play ‘en-spirits’ us.”
Solitary-play apps on our phones and video games have a place underneath the big umbrella of all things play-related. However, they don’t quite satisfy the cravings for playful interactions like what face-to-face activities can provide. My encouragement for your family is to try a new playful activity that puts you around the table or in the living room or out in the backyard. If you want a suggestion, check out this DIY puzzle hunt idea that you could make for your family members (or have them make for you). 
Have a great suggestion for the rest of us? Please post your best face-to-face playful activity (that we can use while sheltering-in-place) in the comments below!


¹ Check out the book Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi



Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders, Director of Youthfront Camp West, has been part of the Youthfront staff since 2012. He is passionate about curating spaces for youth to experience redemptive moments. Prior to joining Youthfront, Matt served as a youth worker for 15 years at churches in Idaho, Calgary (Alberta, Canada), and Kansas. He is a curriculum developer, speaker, and published game designer.

Matt received his Master of Liberal Arts degree from Baker University.

He serves as a consultant to the Center for Games and Learning at MidAmerica Nazarene University. With his free time, Matt loves to play board games, coach volleyball, and read fantasy or science fiction novels.

Matt is married to Sheila and they have two teenage children, Kyron and Raylee. 


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