by Fatmah Al-Qadfan
I heard a large bird caw and flutter its wings, the hissing of a snake and a low ominous rumble. Thunder? Before I could be sure, a giant mosquito came at me with frightening determination. I ducked for cover and watched the monster buzz angrily. Drenched in sweat and thinking of my next move, I knew we weren’t in Kansas anymore. My classmates and I left the air conditioned classroom and magically transitioned into a humid rainforest in our Creative Drama class. At other times we would find ourselves at the Olympic Games, or thrust underwater exploring a sunken ship. The class was divided into four units starting with drama games and ending with puppetry. We were required to journal after each class and hand in detailed accounts to our professor. It was then when I discovered that playing is an essential part of life.
That semester I learnt that food nourishes our body and exercise strengthens it, yet it’s play that challenges our mind and shapes our relationships. I am now halfway through my MA program in Drama Therapy at Kansas State University and I have held a couple of workshops in Kuwait to remind adults of the importance of play. If you’re wondering what Drama Therapy is, you’re not alone. Drama Therapy is still a relatively new field that uses drama processes, like role play, to resolve issues. It’s an active approach to therapy. Instead of sitting down and discussing a problem, therapist and client(s) get up on their feet and try different techniques. Drama Therapists work in many different settings including correctional facilities and rehabilitation centers, whereas others work in schools, at community centers or at private practices.
Drama Therapy puts great emphasis on the importance of play and it has gotten me thinking and as such I hope that I have been reexamining my play history; when did I stop playing and why? My childhood was filled with make-believe, but as I grew older everything became more structured. I focused on organized sport and competitive games instead of hosting imaginary tea parties. It made more sense to focus on that which could be outwardly measured: math, science, reading books, writing essays, swimming more laps. It seemed that the jungle game that I created with my siblings, with its rapid rivers and slippery moss, wasn’t going to get me on the Honor’s List. It vanished overnight.
Growing up I attended a “well-rounded” school that put a semi-serious effort in maintaining art programs. But even during those fun extracurricular activities (that were marketed as confidence-boosting, creativity-inducing, grade-improving), students had to abide by strict rules. The school punished kids who broke the rules with detention. This tells me that – on a subconscious level – educators know the importance of playtime, so seizing those precious minutes that a child waits for all day is the ultimate punishment. Research shows that children behave better when they’ve had time to play because they get to expel energy, enter the classroom ready to absorb new information. Children who do not get enough playtime can be known to put on weight, develop health complications, or in extreme cases are diagnosed with attention deficiency.
To this day, nothing compares to break-time at my school. We had an exquisite thirty-five minutes that lasted forever. I would start out with a game of You’re It by the football field; I didn’t care who was ‘it’ because I just wanted to run and feel the wind against my face. Then we would catch little grasshoppers and watch them wiggle in our palms before they hopped away. Afterwards I’d join a few girls who were playing hopscotch. I would eat, I would learn a new song, all in the span of thirty-five minutes!
Those break times are now a distant memory. I can’t lose track of time anymore. Nowadays if I play a board game with friends I glance incessantly at my phone even if I have nothing else planned. Is precious time being wasted? Am I being lazy? I can trace these habits right back to the school system that doled out scant minutes of playtime here and there, and took playtime away at a whim. My school rewarded me with certificates and trophies for taking more subjects than anyone else during high school. I was congratulated for having no time to play. From school to university to the workplace, I maintained an impossibly busy schedule and a never-ending stream of self-criticism.
Drama Therapy has inspired me to break those habits. It’s the conviction that work and play are a dichotomy that leads to low self-esteem, and feelings of emptiness or listlessness. Those who play are seen as lazy, vacuous or immature, whereas workaholics are the successful achievers. They will rise to the top, they’re the future bosses. Or are they? What if we erase the shame that is associated with play by reintroducing adults to the joys and benefits of imaginative play? Without play the brain cannot handle stress efficiently, and emotional regulatory tasks that reside in the right prefrontal cortex will be affected. Play theorist, Stuart Brown, states, “when we stop playing, we start dying.” That is the urgency that I want to pass on to people. Play is not optional, it’s essential.