A group of young kids ( 7-8 year-olds) are watching a video. I’m watching them. All of them are staring with that totally absorbed look. Faces relaxed. Mouths slightly open. Eyes unblinking. Some with a half-smile. Some grinning and wiggling. Is it a goofy cartoon character bopping another over the head with an oversized mallet, a falling down clown? Nope. 

It’s a bunch of otters floating, twirling, and sliding down a riverbank. I imagine I see those otters are smiling too.

“In their downtime, though, otters love to play and will often build themselves slides along the banks of rivers.” ~ Mentalfloss.com

And now this: “We are the otters of the human world.” (Wish I could remember where I read or heard this, but it sure makes me smile).


Line that quote up alongside an often repeated phrase from childhood. “Work first, then play” and it’s… an interesting mix. How many times did I hear that in my life? “Work first, then play” made its appearance in childhood, was my constant companion throughout college, got hardwired into my work ethic, and marched along with me throughout several careers. The edict took such a firm hold that the echos were there during just about any activity: Hike, then have snack. Clear the table, then watch tv. Make the bed, then go read. 

My falling into a excessive and harmful interpretation of those words led to an attitude that life was tough – you must EARN your reward. Work first, then play. Sometimes the work was never done. I was screwed.

I spent quite a few years – and bucks — on expanding the meaning of balance, and shifting the scale of “work first, then play” into Work and Play. Much to my astonishment I discovered Work is Play. I don’t have to do…       I have the opportunity to… or Hey, I get the chance to… 


My Apple Genius, who I had fun writing about in Seedlings, “Not My Tribe,” encouraged me to go home and play with my new laptop — i.e., see what happens if you press this key or several together. He called it play. My website guru also encourages the “play with it” technique. In the early days of building my website we established the basics of the layout. His fingers flew over the keyboard as he prepared to put some things in place. He was grinning. “This is the fun part.”  I was astounded but loved that idea. 

Apple Genius and website guy were both in their 30’s or younger. I was in my 60’s and had been brought up that if you touched a button, things could fizzle, spark, or stop completely…and forever. With the reassurance of my guru and Genius both being willing to go online and fix it or better yet, show me how to fix it, I began to take those “huge risks.”                


 “It is a happy talent to know how to play.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson 

I always loved playing with words. Making up words with my Twin as a little kid seemed hilarious to us. My favorite word just because of the reverberating sound of it is bok choy. If someone says it in conversation, be prepared. I will repeat it in various inflections, pitches, and speeds. I say this without embarrassment. Try it. Well, not with bok choy but your own word play. My Twin and a few wordsmiths I know are repartee players – a funny word comes up and we play with it. Use it as a noun, a verb, an adverb. 

Word play in writing offers me time to fool around with a rough draft, revise, edit, and even — start over. Does it sound better this way? Look better in print? Hey, which font would look more appealing? Let me just play with it. 

 “It’s the things we play with and the people who help us play that make a great difference in our lives.” ~Fred Rogers 

four women laughing outside with arms linkedI have some play friends — the ones who enjoy laughing, or the costuming, or interpretive dance.

Our brains are built to benefit from play no matter what our age.” ~Theresa A. Kestly 

 “Play is our brain’s favorite way of learning.” ~ Diane Ackerman

My tai chi instructor called our class practice Play. 

My CSL leader starts our Sunday service with something akin to, “We’re glad you have chosen to come play with us. “

“Be playful” was the often-used phrase in my Energy Meditation meetings with Nancie Leon. 

My latest artistic endeavor with Stampin’ Up is something I began this fall. I see it as a playful activity. 

When I’m getting my hair done, I’ve learned not to deprive my hairstylist of the finalé. Color, cut, blow-dry. And then style. She gets an almost gleeful look as she combs, fusses and fixes. And her parting advice: “Just play with it at home.” 

Be an otter!

More playing next time.

Ethel Lee-Miller blogs regularly about people, the power of words, and the writing life. She’s retired from professional writing gigs after 30 years of teaching, coaching, editing, and gathering writers to publicly share their work. She is the author of Thinking of Miller Place, and Seedlings, Stories of Relationships. In retirement she writes to inspire, to connect with folks, and for the pure enjoyment of it. Ethel enjoys sharing stories at Odyssey Storytelling, Zoom gatherings, and anywhere there’s a mic.