The Holiness of Play
“Grandma, can we play ‘Firefighter Mike’ again?”
Two big brown eyes are looking at me, and my three-year-old grandson Stephen is checking the level of my mug of coffee to see if I have finished.
It all began with a story I made up when I heard his new interest was in playing fireman.
He would ask me to tell the story again and again, and then he began to act it out as I told it. I loved the faraway look that would come into his eyes, as he imagined himself as Fireman Mike being guided through the smoke by the bark of his faithful dog Spotty. Soon it became a pretend game that we play together when Grandma visits.
The game always begins the same way. We are asleep at the firehouse when the bell rings. We wipe the sleep from our eyes and slide down the pole, get dressed in our gear, and jump onto the fire truck. It is very important that you say, “Come, Spotty!” as he leaps to the top of the truck. Then it is also very important that when you get out of the truck, you say “Whoa!” as you look upon the blazing inferno.
Once the fire is out it, its back to the fire station for a well-deserved ice cream cone.
Stephen pretends to bring out the various choices and we make whopping good delights. Little brother Joseph often wanders through the scene, and though too young to get wrapped up in the fullness of the game, we pretend he is “Fireman Joe” who has made us some burgers upon our return. We eat them, too, for after all, firefighting makes one very hungry!
Sometimes when we are playing, I can hear the echo of my old professors saying,
“Play is the work of the child.” I spent many years as a pediatric Occupational Therapist, saying that I got paid to play.
But I never understood the deeper spiritual dimension of play until I had my own children. Oh, I knew that it was healthy for them, particularly if you let them lead in a pretend game. But it began to dawn on me that playing with them is like accompanying a foreign diplomat to his country of origin and allowing him to act as host. You honor the child’s world by entering into it and allowing him to “show you around”.
I always enjoyed playing with our children, but when our adopted son arrived, his special needs threatened to overwhelm me at times. I both feared and hoped for what level of ability he could achieve, something I think that most parents of special needs children experience. But his progress or lack of it consumed too much of my thoughts of him, sometimes stealing from the joy of having him join our family. Our other children were thrilled at every aspect of their new brother, and their warmth and openness both moved and inspired me.
I began to realize that if I wanted to “invite him to health” in a sense, I had to go to his world and be with him, no judgment and no expectations allowed. So we began to play his way, letting him lead and doing all sorts of silly things that made all of the children and my husband laugh until our sides hurt. But this time, Peter was laughing with us and the joy came flooding through to the whole family…along with an insight given through grace.
I began to realize that our son had taught me a lesson on the Incarnation. God the Father called to his people in the Old Testament through his prophets, showing them the way to Him. Yet the Chosen People kept straying, drawn away by the things of this world.
So God sent His Son, our “Emmanuel” to be one of us, to be with us…to enter our world and become our bridge to heaven. He did not judge our human condition, but took it on and showed us what we could be.
Interestingly enough, Peter’s progress began to take off shortly after we began playing together, following his lead, and his presence in our family has blessed us all. I remember the day he first said his name, and in his glee did this dance that was more victorious than any football player in the end zone after a winning touchdown!
So when we recite the Creed at Mass, and we bow our heads at the holiness of our God becoming man, perhaps our bow should continue all the way to the floor once we return home to our families and play with our children or grandchildren.
As long as my bad knees hold up, and even if they don’t, I hope to play with my grandchildren, and in so doing open myself to more lessons about God that I learn in my time with them. Perhaps one of the ways to answer the universal call to holiness might begin with the wearing of a fireman’s hat.
Ding! Ding! Ding! Wipe the sleep from my eyes! Gotta go!