When someone invites you, "Want to play?" how do you respond? What does "Play" look like?
For me, play opens up possibilities, and yet, when my child tips over into stress, terror, or overwhelm, I can find myself flooded with a sense of disconnection, fear and shame,completely closed off to the possibility of play.
Receiving empathy support and learning about the brain has helped me to live in more congruence with my values; remaining open, curious, and understanding, especially when parenting.
Yet, even then, I sensed something was missing. I longed for a dis-confirming experience where my heart would remain open and present regardless of environmental factors.
My breakthrough came when my empathy buddy invited me to a weekend play workshop in Portland. I was amazed and thrilled with the possibility!
I was filled with gleeful anticipation, and the weekend gave me a visceral experience that helped me gain clarity around how to hold my child’s experiences, not only with more ease but with a heart of love rather than fear.
At the workshop, I sat with 30+ others all gathered together in a big circle. We all wore loose and comfortable clothing as we sat on a floor covered with thick, cushioned, mats. As our instructor, O. Fred Donaldson, joined the circle, he invited us to glimpse the world of Original Play* through a framework of concepts; choices, distinctions and patterns. "There is another choice besides resistance and contest behavior. We're looking at choice this weekend - fight, freeze or flee - but we can actually play with events that are designed to kill us."
*Original Play information: https://originalplay.eu/ Original Play seeks to improve relationships between individuals and groups by replacing aggression and violence between people with kindness and love, and to make every child feel safe and loved.
As I listened with rapt attention, I found the guidelines so illuminating: no contest, no winning, no losing, no fault, no fairness, no revenge, no tickling. I realized that the kind of play I had learned in the world was cultural; games, activities, and sports.
This kind of play is commonly presented to children along with teaching them rules to live by; compete to win or you're a loser, find fault/blame, get revenge, exclude people. I instantly recognized and began to mourn the style of parenting that had been modeled and adopted by me with my now adult children.
I could see how it really is possible to hold one's children with unconditional love and acceptance and wanted above all else to really be clear on what that looked and felt like.
I heard about the patterns of children's play: how children use their eyes; and how to use my hands, feet, and body; how touch moves up the body; the last thing touched is the head and how hands remain open.
We learned how to let our body mirror/imitate the body of the child and to wait for our invitation for play to be accepted, to slow down and follow the child's lead. As I listened to all of this, a renewed sense of clarity dawned within me, as if I were awakening.
Suddenly I had new eyes and could "see" so many play opportunities with my child. I was eager to explore them all! It was clear that Original Play "is not just a human activity to solve a human problem." It's a gift given to all creation and all of life knows the patterns.
Fred spent 10 years playing with wolves. He played with wild dolphins for five weeks in Australia, and played with deer, elk, bison, black bear, and grizzly bear in Montana. All the animals played with the same patterns.
"Original play is not about having fun. It's not a dance, sport, or extreme sport. It's a gift from creation so that I can love completely, fully, whatever comes to me."
Wow. This was something I was desperate to experience. This was something I wanted to fully understand on a cellular level.
I know experiencing this way of being is key to perceiving my child in a whole new way, with much more consistency, and it feels hauntingly familiar.
As I took in the information, my stomach and jaws clenched tight in resistance to my thought of active participation.
A part of me was quite simply terrified I'd "do it wrong," and I felt an impulse to hide as panic began to expand in my chest.
I glanced over at my empathy buddy and felt a gentle warmth cascade over me down into my belly as our hearts and eyes connected. The tension I was holding released. I experienced a sense of revitalization, openness, and the freedom to engage in the group with exploration and discovery on the visceral level.
It was fascinating - having a playmate, one I trusted and felt safe with, made all the difference in the world for my nervous system to relax and open up to learning! Let's tie this into research on the neurobiology of a secure attachment.
With the primary caregiver, psycho biological regulation influences the child's maturing limbic system, the brain areas specialized for adapting to a rapidly changing environment.
The right hemisphere has deep connections into the limbic and autonomic nervous systems and is dominant for the human stress response. When I visually connected with my empathy buddy (through our left eyes) my stressed right hemisphere was soothed and calmed by hers.
Warm and resonant attachment relationships facilitate the expansion of our coping capacities. This piece of experiential learning was huge for me and totally amazing to experience with awareness.
In a moment's time, I reflectively "see" a kaleidoscope effect of interactions with my child, gaining a deeper and more compassionate understanding around what his experience might be like when he is feeling stressed, terrified, and overwhelmed by his environment. My aching heart expands with acceptance and love.