One beautiful summer night with a soft ocean breeze finds me crouching down to climb into a bumper car at a boardwalk amusement park while my daughter and her friend do the same. As a young child I especially enjoyed riding bumper cars. It combined the joy of a game with an element of sophistication as you sat behind the wheel of a car, well before you got your driver’s permit. Despite new high-tech rides, my daughter and her friends also love this freewheeling “dodgems” experience.
Although there is the gleeful anticipation of the ride, I find my “worried mom” mindset starts to seep in: What does the impact of the cars do to the brain? How does the jolting affect the spine? Will my knees bruise as they bang against the handles?
My fretful musings are interrupted by the ride operator at my shimmering lavender rig. He leans over and tells me in a conspiratorial fashion: “Whatever you do, don’t hit the turquoise car with those ladies in it.” I strain my head to find the turquoise car amid the other neon vehicles. I finally spot it and see two gaunt white-haired octogenarians clutching on the doors and climbing carefully into seats. The taller of the two takes the wheel as the shorter one settles into the passenger side. The ride operator makes stops along to all the other cars, quietly giving the drivers the same admonition. I look across the track at my daughter. We exchange glances acknowledging our silent oath, then communicate with a shrug of our shoulders as if to say — How hard can it be?
The power is turned on and the cars jolt to a start. We take the wheels in the herky-jerky style that at times belies the fact that you actually do control the car’s movement. What I thought would be an effortless task turns demanding as the senior drivers transform into racing daredevils going after everyone in their path. They are on a mission! The rest of us go into high-alert avoidance mode, doing our best to honor our pledge to not hit the turquoise car. I briefly imagine the tweets and news headlines possible — 80-year-old women injured due to crash from bumper cars.
Unlike other times, when the ride duration seemed much too short, this one lasts an inordinate amount of time. When the power to the cars is finally terminated, I breathe a sigh of relief. No injuries. I look over at the elderly duo departing the track, faces aglow and with beaming smiles. In contrast to their entry, they exit with confident strides, exuding pride at their triumphant ride and multitude of direct hits.
I expect to see great-grandchildren greet them at the exit, but no family members wait for them. It was just the two of them, out for a night “at the boards.”
The next morning, my family and I couldn’t help but reflect on the pure joy and abandon we witnessed in the elderly women. We noted that younger friends or relatives hadn’t prodded them to ride the cars. They didn’t need an “excuse” for why they climbed into their little turquoise car. They, themselves, wanted to play. We all agreed that when we were in our 80’s we hoped we were still riding bumper cars.
Summer helps bring out the kid in all of us. As we take in “life’s simple pleasures,” from walking the beach looking for shells to blissful dips in ponds, outdoor games, and hikes, we become young again. We give ourselves the liberty of playing.
Experiencing Playful Interludes
I feel lucky that I get to experience playful times as part of my job. As Head of an all girls’ preK-12 school, there are moments, in each day, when play beckons. Whether it is walking into a first-grade music class and joining in the singing and dancing, to working on a Legos robotics project with a group of sixth-graders, or taking batting practice and joking with the high school softball team, I am lucky to experience the wonder and delight of these playful interludes. These moments ground me and help me better understand how my students experience the varied learning opportunities that abound in my school, a place where they experience the joy of discovering their best selves.
We know play is important to child development. Indeed, a new report from the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that pediatricians “write a prescription for play” at well visits to help enhance childhood play. A recent article in The Wall Street Journal advocates for more play time to help children thrive. I am proud that my own school has long followed the practice that play goes hand-in-hand with rigorous academics and helps stimulate curiosity, imagination, and growth.
But adults, too, benefit from play. Decreased stress levels and increased feelings of well-being are associated with adult play. There is evidence that play encourages creativity and innovation in adults. In their recent book The Playful Entrepreneur, Mark Dodgson and David Gann note that play fosters exploration, experimentation, and curiosity, providing a fertile environment to develop innovative approaches, particularly during uncertain conditions. Play helps us push boundaries, test alternative ways of tackling issues, and enhance motivation and teamwork.
Fostering Creativity and Openness
Every strong leader I have known has had a sense of humor and encouraged a playful environment within their team. This didn’t mean we didn’t do hard work — we did. We took on challenging situations, and accomplished much with great fortitude, dedication, and rigor. We advanced strategic plans, improved operations, and made hard decisions. We had a strong foundation of trust, which led to the creative and playful space to explore new ideas and perspectives. This contributed to effective and successful teams.
I write this as the days grow colder and the hours of sunlight shorter. Nevertheless, the adage that “summer is a state of mind” reminds us that we don’t need to rigidly follow a three-month schedule, tossing out beneficial perspectives just because the season has changed. We would do well to hold onto the valuable summer spirit of play throughout the year. Our health and our leadership teams and organizations will be better for it.