4 Tips To Help You Engage in the Spiritual Practice of Play

“Play with me, mommy!”

I hear this a lot, and I bet you do too. Right after the earnest request, one of my boys will lead me by the hand toward their block tower, or superhero capes, or plastic doctor playset. In recent years, I’ve battled more than my share of beyblades, lost many Nerf wars, and found many great spots for hide-and-seek.

Play is the work of childhood, a way for kids to acquire skills and make sense of the world around them. But what about busy moms? Does play have value in our own lives? 

Play as a spiritual practice 

Just as God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh, we have a model for resting and delighting in His creation. God commanded us to keep the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8-11), a day set aside for rest. But rest is not just the cessation of all work, it’s an invitation to spend time with God, spend time with the people we love, and engage in playful delight. It reminds me of what the Fathers of the Church called “holy leisure.”

Now the Fathers of the Church well understood the importance of a certain “holy leisure”  [or] “otium sanctum.” We cannot give ourselves to spiritual things if we are always swept off our feet by a multitude of external activities.

Thomas Merton from Spiritual Direction and Meditation

As a mom I can relate to that feeling of being swept off my feet “by a multitude of external activities.” That’s why incorporating pockets of play and rest into our daily rhythms can be a spiritual practice.

I love how June Mack Maffin likened play to prayer: “Like prayer, laughter and play can be healing to the body, mind and soul. Laughter and play are holy things. When we play, we leave behind the daily stressors and allow our spirit to breathe and re-create.”

What does it mean to play?

Dr. Stuart Brown, psychiatrist and founder of the National Institute of Play, defines play as any activity that brings a sense of pleasure and enjoyment, done for its own sake rather than for any practical purpose or outcome. For this reason, play can take many forms: surfing, geocaching, reading, rollerblading, video games, painting, movies, board games, even flirting and daydreaming!

This past July, I took a month off of writing and took advantage of the summer pause in my graduate studies. I had a lot of extra time in which to rest and play. 

At first, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I should be doing something productive. After the intensive years of raising two young boys very close in age and balancing part-time work for a nonprofit, doing something purely for the fun of it didn’t come naturally anymore. I fell into my default leisure activity, and read fourteen books over the course of a few weeks. I also went hiking. I played cards and board games with my family. I soaked up the sun by the lake and felt the sand between my toes.

By the end of the month, I was more spiritually refreshed, more rested, and a more creative person. There’s no denying that playing enriches the quality of my life. But—and here’s the rub—not every month is a vacation. We’re heading into a busy fall season full of work and other adult responsibilities that won’t disappear just because we want to play. 

So how can we incorporate more play into our daily routines for the sake of our spiritual health?

4 tips to help you engage in the spiritual practice of play

Enforce boundaries around your work

When I was a special education teacher, I quickly realized that I could work all day every day and still not feel prepared enough to teach. Between lesson planning, writing Individualized Education Plans, creating hands-on learning activities, and documenting progress, the tasks felt never-ending. The smartest thing I did in my first year as a teacher was to enforce a boundary on my time: I left my classroom every day at 5 PM and I did not bring work home with me. Not only did this help me prioritize my work tasks, but it improved my mental health and helped my marriage. When I got home, my husband and I took a leisurely walk around the neighborhood to decompress, then ate dinner together. 

As a stay-at-home mom, my boundary is my kids’ early bedtime. I try to make sure the kitchen is clean beforehand, so that after 7:30 PM I can put my feet up, read a book, and spend time with my husband. When my kids were younger, a helpful boundary I put in place was never to do something during naptime which I could reasonably do when my kids were awake. That meant saying yes to painting my nails and no to unloading the dishwasher.

Translate your childhood play

Dr. Stuart Brown recommends taking an inventory of activities you enjoyed as a child and reintegrating them into your life as an adult. Did you used to love physical competition? Join a sports league! Were you a tree climber? Consider hiking or mountain climbing! Did you love to make stuff? Learn a new hobby like embroidery or making pottery! Did you put on plays as a child? Consider joining your city’s community theater! Did you like to get your hands dirty? Try a new recipe!

I’ve recently started putting together 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzles. It gets me away from my computer screen and it provides me a way to think and daydream while doing something interesting. Sometimes I listen to an audiobook while I snap the pieces into place. In doing so, I’m combining two of my childhood loves: creating and reading.

Be prepared to play

In times of boredom, we’re quick to reach for the quickest form of entertainment: our smartphones. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with scrolling through our favorite social media app, it rarely gives us the mental rest or soul-filling satisfaction that we crave. Consider instead actually calling a friend to catch up. Or read a few pages from an e-book on your phone instead of reading Instagram captions.

Make a list of activities that bring you joy and keep the list handy for whenever you have ten minutes, an hour, or an afternoon to yourself. Keep a list of books you want to read next, comedy specials you want to watch, out-of-your-comfort zone activities you’ve always wanted to try. You’re more likely to stop yourself from wasting precious downtime in the black hole of social media if you have a ready list of fun activities to turn to instead. 

Subscribers to my email newsletter (“The Scoop”) can access the Free for You library and download this tool to help brainstorm a list of activities that feel playful:

A free worksheet to help you brainstorm a list of playful activities that bring you joy

Carve out intentional time to play

A few years ago, my friend Caroline told me she signed up for tap dancing classes at our local recreation center, for no other reason than wanting to have some fun. This was surprising because, like me, she had toddlers at home and always felt busy and tired.

“How do you find the time?” I asked her.

“I worked it out with my husband so that he knows he’s on daddy-duty every Thursday night,” she said.

It takes more intentionality in some stages of life to carve out time to play, but it’s worth doing. Not long after this conversation, I started a book club that met once a month and found that I loved the sense of fun and connection it brought to my stay-at-home-mom life.

The truth is, in our busy lives, play may have to be scheduled on our calendar if we’re going to intentionally engage in it. So contact your babysitter and schedule that concert. Make plans for mini-golf with a friend. Plan to take a hike with your camera, or clear the card table to set up a puzzle. Create blank space on a Sunday afternoon and guard it fiercely. Know what brings you joy and make a habit of setting aside special time each week for it.

Play is serious business

Giving play more serious consideration merits some changes in my own life. Going forward, I’m bringing back something from my days working as a teacher: Fun Day Friday. Each Friday afternoon in my classroom was set aside for arts, crafts, and cooking around a specific theme. I justified these activities to my school administration as language learning in my lesson plans, but it was pure fun for both me and my students. 

Going forward in my life as a busy mom in grad school who writes on the side, I’ll be carving out a few hours every Friday to play as a spiritual practice. I’m eager to set aside this time to do something for the pure joy of it, in order to connect with the God who delights in me.

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*Feature Photo by Veronica García on Unsplash

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Sarah K. Butterfield is an author, speaker, and ministry leader who has a heart for empowering women to grow in their faith and be intentional with their time. She and her husband and two boys live in San Diego, where she writes about pursuing a deeper relationship with God in the midst of motherhood.

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