All I did was play
Amaal Noor Habib, my granddaughter, is two and starting to speak in sentences. And one of our most enjoyable activities is having a conversation with her. Yesterday, she saw me on my laptop and said, “Nima, you working?” And I said, “Nima is working!”.
“Did Amaal work today?” I asked. She said, “No, Amaal play in school”. To put things in context, Amaal goes to a daycare from 8 am to 4:30 pm, so it’s a full day for her.
And at school there is a plethora of activities, from playing with blocks and sand and clay, to finger painting, to reading books. They learn to dance, to share, to play fair, to wash hands, to take a nap, to discover new food. That’s a lot of working, except Amaal sees this as play. Periodically, Amaal is evaluated against a scale to determine her progress – can she wear her shoes by herself? Can she point to things in a book when asked to find them? Can she point to at least two body parts? etc. It is like a performance review.
Over the past few weeks that we are in Nairobi, Amaal has been going to Mos’s school and it is a whole new experience of learning through play. They bake cookies and mandazi and get to eat what they make. They ride bicycles. They garden. They play with animals. They pick tomatoes. Today is swimming day. When I watch Mos with his Lego blocks or Play-doh, I find he is utterly absorbed in what he is doing. Occasionally I hear an “Oh,oh, almost falling”, when he puts a big Lego block over a small piece. There is no judgement, just fresh eyes, figuring out combinations, being broad and imaginative and willingness to take a risk.
In my coaching practice, I talk to people who are exhausted and burnt out, not having a lot of fun. Work for them has become intense and all-encompassing. The expectation (sometimes self-imposed) is to hustle, to push themselves beyond their limit, to prioritize work over everything else, to see play as guilt. The notion is that everything will be better when they have completed the work and achieved their targets. But surely, the quality of the journey is as important as the outcome.
It got me thinking about what life would be like for us if we approached our work with a sense of play. If somehow we could balance work with play, understanding that recovery and renewal is an essential part of performing well at work.
I have discovered a powerful way to bring play into my work. It is something I learned when I went on vacation to Portugal and was inspired by how people lived and how they prioritized family and children and laughter. I observed how large families – 15 to 20 people – would come together at nights at a table outside a restaurant, eating together, over many hours, laughing and playing. The food would be based on what they could afford, often just sardines and bread. I saw this happen on park benches, in makeshift areas overlooking the city. I kept thinking I want more of this. An indelible image from my time in Portugal was watching a couple on the rooftop of a home, talking and drinking wine.
So when I came back to Toronto, I decided to create a 2-hour vacation everyday, which my circumstances allow for. I take two hours each day to do something I enjoy. It could be calling up a friend for an impromptu lunch, inviting myself to my neighbour for a swim, taking a walk with Nagib in the ravine, baking a chicken pot pie for a friend, going to a coffee shop to read a book, calling up a friend for a long, delicious conversation. Small things, done intentionally, to make time to recharge. Basically what I have done is to create a life I don’t want to escape from.
Play is an attitude I believe we need to cultivate to give our best selves to the world. Some of my clients create icebreakers in meetings as a way to get to know each other better. Others have game rooms and coffee corners, even nap pods to encourage people to get away from work for a period of time.
When my kids were in kindergarten, I remember a poem that was read at their graduation. It was about parents asking their kids what they did at school, and the refrain was the kids saying to the parent, “All we did was play”. There is something beautiful and poignant about this, something we seem to have forgotten as we have gotten older, something my husband is re-discovering as he becomes a grandfather. So, whatever your stage in life, create play into your world. It may be the best thing you do!