Castles, Catch and Kairos: Relearning Play in an Age of Digital Distraction

I once asked a kindergarten boy if there was anything he’d like me to tell his mom, who’d asked me to call her after a counseling session with her son.

“Tell her to get off the phone!”  he snapped with a bitterness that took me by surprise.

“What?  You mean she talks on the phone a lot?” I asked.

“No!” he exclaimed.  “She plays games on it!  She used to play with me!”

She used to play with me.

It was one of those clarifying moments you don’t forget. I had to wonder how many children, less vocal and passionate than the steely-eyed child before me were longing for genuine playtime with adults whose “play” preference had shifted from a person or a pastime to a screen.

There’s nothing wrong with a foray into cyber battle or a meander into Angry Bird land, of course.  But as digital distraction begins to dominate our time, we’re forgetting what we’ve sidelined, including constructing castles and playing catch.

“It is a happy talent to know how to play,” Ralph Waldo Emerson once said. 

It’s true whether or not we have little ones tugging at our sleeves.

One of the more thought-provoking books I’ve read in recent years is MIT professor Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation:  The Power of Talk in a Digital AgeTurkle’s concern, indicated by her title, is the decline of interpersonal connection even as our devices claim to improve it.

But I keep coming back to another of Turkle’s points as well. It’s about the way devices destroy slower, more restorative activities that include moments of boredom. When we constantly interrupt them with the “neurochemical high” we get from digital stimulation, we lose the punctuation points important to a thoughtful, creative life.

In a 2015 interview with Greater Good Magazine:  Science-Based Insights for a Meaningful Life, Turkle put it like this: 

Actually allowing yourself a moment of boredom is crucial to human interaction and it’s crucial to your brain as well. When you’re bored, your brain isn’t bored at all—it’s replenishing itself, and it needs that down time.

Just as overstimulation from too much caffiene reduces our focus, presence and performance, overstimulation from devices keeps us distracted and diminished.  We’re forgetting how it feels to be playfully present to the moment at hand.

Dr. Stuart Brown, who’s spent decades studying play, says play is a critical component in human happiness, sustaining social relationships and being creative, innovative people.  His book Play:  How It Shapes the Brain Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, makes a bold claim for recovering the happy talent:

Play is the basis of all art, games, books, sports movies, fashion, fun and wonder–in short, the basis of what we think of as civilization. Play is the vital essence of life.  It is what makes life lively.

According to Brown, whenever we’re engaged in apparently purposeless, pleasurable and improvisational activity, we’re at play.  Because human beings are so wonderfully varied, a wide range of activities can be considered play. 

My husband takes pleasure in gardening, for instance. I try to help him, but it’s drudgery to me. Give me the time to write about ideas and books that delight me, and I’m at play. He’s paralyzed by the thought of it.

Any time you’re so absorbed and delighted that you lose the sense of time you’re at play, whether it looks like work to somebody else or not.

Some highly sophisticated electronic games incorporate spontaneity and thus qualify as play, but most video games occupy us in only in fine motor manipulation and visual stimulation, a limiting, though captivating engagement.  Genuine play requires a more varied combination of imagination, creativity and social skill.  These faculties are healing, and they expand each time we play.

What kind of people are we becoming as we fritter hours scrolling through Facebook or killing digital Zombies?  I ask in frank acknowledgement that I struggle with digital distraction. 

But I’m beginning to notice the choice between filling my time and killing it. 

One restores my zest for life; the other leaves me anxious and empty.

Brown’s emphasis on the joyous absorption that makes us lose the sense of time got me thinking about about the ancient Greek words for time: chronos (the clock-time that so constrains us) and kairos (the more qualitative designation of a proper moment, a season, or even, in the New Testament, the time when God’s kingdom enters).

It’s the time, says Madeline L’Engle,

which breaks through chronos with a shock of joy, that time we do not recognize when we are experiencing it, but only afterwards…we are completely unselfconscious, and yet paradoxically far more real than we can ever be when we’re constantly checking our watches for chronological time.

The saint lost in contemplation of God is in kairos, L’Engle explains. So is the artist at work. And she adds:

The child at play, totally thrown outside herself in the game, be it building a sand castle or making a daisy chain, is in kairos.

So how do we create more space for kairos? A few simple disciplines are helping me manage my own temptation to digital distraction:

  • Silent prayer and spiritual reading the first hour of the day.
  • No phones at the table.
  • A scheduled, limited time for social media.
  • Replacing the phrase “down time” (though Turkle uses it) with “recreation.”

Recreation is play; it “re-creates” us, making us new.

Decades before the digital revolution began captivating and enslaving us, C.S. Lewis noted that a world “cursed with labour, hemmed round with necessities, tripped up with frustrations, doomed to perpetual plannings, puzzlings, and anxieties” prevented qualities more in tune with the divine from “getting through” to us.

The professor childlike enough to create Narnia’s magical Wardrobe recommended frivioulous, joy-producing engagement in game and dance, that we might expand the human capacity for the joy that opens us to contemplation. “Joy,” said Lewis, “is the serious business of heaven.”

G.K. Chesterton once declared that he would rather be ruled by men who knew how to play than by men who didn’t:

It might reasonably be maintained that the true object of all human life is play. Earth is a task garden; heaven is a playground. To be at last in such secure innocence that one can juggle with the universe and the stars, to be so good that one can treat everything as a joke—that may be, perhaps, the real end and final holiday of human souls.

We “become as little children” in surrender to wonder and delight. 

A little ray of heaven just might “get through” when we put down the phone and play.


Learn more about the science of play at Dr. Stuart Brown’s website, the National Institute for Play and check out his TED talk Play Is More than Just Fun.

“Discover how many ‘child-friendly’ technologies are depriving kids of joy in the real world, putting them at risk for device addictions” at Dr. Freed’s book Wired Child: Reclaiming Childhood in a Digital Age is essential reading for parents. Sign up for his email newsletter to keep current with the latest research on digital distraction and stay tuned for Sparrowfare’s Wired Child review.

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Photos by MI PHAM  and Dallas Reedy on Unsplash.

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