The dark gray object came directly toward my face. I maneuvered carefully, aiming and re-aiming as it grew closer and closer, larger and larger. Negotiating a last-moment gust that moved it almost out of reach, I watched carefully, opened my mouth: bullseye! Nabbed another huge snowflake, savoring its momentary coolness on my tongue.
We’re enjoying a rare Seattle snow today. After a morning in my study, writing recommendations and avoiding grading, I couldn’t contain myself any longer. We bundled up and walked down the street to the park.
I wasn’t the only one regressing to childhood out in the snow. Dogs were merrily frisking around in the playfield, puppies again, digging and chasing. Everyone on the main trail grinned and greeted us as we walked, with a sense of shared fun. Kids were starting to build snowmen—although they’d have to be either pretty small snowmen or the kids would have to harvest a pretty large area for their raw materials.
Making the rounds on Facebook recently has been a video of a crow sliding down a snowy roof. Clearly the crow’s having a wonderful time and has figured out a way to “crowboard” using a new toy/tool. The giggling in the background indicates that the sight is obviously giving a lot of pleasure to the children watching.
Here in West Seattle, crows play with ice in other ways. This crow harvested ice from a frozen puddle by pounding repeatedly at the hard surface, then flew with its hard-won piece to a nearby branch.
I was pretty impressed at the crow’s ability to hold what must have been a slippery piece of ice, and fly with it to boot. Did the crow see the ice flash in the sun? How did it think of chipping out a piece to take off with? Was this just for fun or did the crow foresee a use for its new acquisition?
I’ve heard for years of corvids (crows, ravens, and their relatives) playing in the snow—first from Stuart Brown about 20 years ago, who described ravens sliding down snowbanks on their backs, then flying back to the top to do it again. (See a BBC video of such play here). He explained that the basic unit of walking-mammal play is the leap, which after all is sort of a mini-flight, and so it would make sense that a flying animal could play by being on the ground in a new way.
Brown also noted that if you’re ever feeling down, leap up and down a few times and you’ll feel better. Try it; it works! He’s written a book about play and has also made a TED talk about its importance for all of us: cognitively, emotionally, socially.
Cross-species play is the subject of several of Brown’s examples: between, for instance, a polar bear and a husky, and between humans and nonhuman animals. All of my cats love to play, but one of them takes the interaction farther by requesting to play, even when I haven’t thought of it. She hides behind corners to cue me to drag a string for her to pounce on, and naturally I’m happy to oblige: it’s play for me as much as her!
While traveling over Christmas break, my “trip book” was The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin, in which she describes her preparatory process and then her year of adopting one happiness theme per month. When I thought about happiness themes for myself for 2012, one of the first to come to mind was play.
I don’t want to force play, which would seem so counterintuitive, but to stay attentive to play possibilities as I go through daily life. This new habit has already enriched my life, both in the experience of play and in the creativity of looking around for it. I can’t wait to see what new forms play takes in my life!