This week I sat on the floor with my children, my head covered in a muslin baby swaddle as my three-year-old gave me instructions on how to play with them. Three-year-olds can be incredibly particular. Mama, do this and say that. There are rules to play, ya know.
After ten minutes of playing, I got antsy to do something else, preferably something productive. But I stayed longer, out of desire and discipline to be a mom who is present, and out of awe for the way my children play.
Our three and five-year-olds, Ellie and Thomas, can imagination-play for hours. They are doctors, climber-boy and climber-girl, mommy and daddy, Elsa and Anna, Leila and Jack, Mama Mary and Baby Jesus, etc., etc. Some days I get in trouble for calling them by their names because they are so deeply entrenched in another world. Thomas will state, “Mama, why do you keep calling me Thomas? My name is Jack.” Some days, they are perturbed with me when I ask to be just their Mama instead of Mary Poppins or Mommy Elsa.
While play is simply the way they inhabit the world much of the time, there is also something holy about it. How so?
Several years back, I had a spiritual director who frequently assigned me to make a “holy waste of time.” She said, sit on a bench somewhere and do nothing. Just sit, look around or close your eyes, be attentive to the present moment. There was a reason this assignment was frequent—I always needed it. I struggle with simply sitting and being. I yearn for it, and also resist it.
When my children play, they are focused, creative, emotionally present, and attentive (to each other and the task at hand). When I listen to them play, I hear them processing—happy occasions, fears, and ordinary life. In play, I see my kids living deeply.
Their play reminds me of this Scripture from the prophet Isaiah: “Thus says the LORD,/…The designer and maker of the earth/ who established it,/ Not as an empty waste did he create it,/ but designing it to be lived in” (45:18). They are living in the world in the way their Creator intended—immersed in the present moment. It’s not always sunshine and butterflies. Sometimes they play about the Coronavirus or death (most of the time the person comes back to life like Jesus), and get in fights that need to be resolved and forgiven—preparation for life.
True mom confession—in the past year of Coronavirus quarantine, preschool shutdown, and learning to be at home with my kids full time, I had guilt over my kids playing so much. Like, is this enriching enough? Are they learning enough? Should I be doing more? I’m learning though, that play isn’t just something kids do, but good and worthwhile. It is practice for some of the most important skills in life and the spiritual life. And it is true that God delights when his children are at play.
God did not create the world or us as a waste (Is. 45:18). He created us with intention and goodness. It turns out that when we make a holy waste of our time—sitting on the ground with our kids or pets, lingering at the table, resisting the urge to scroll, remaining outside a few more minutes—we can see our faithful God living in and with us, working to make us holy.