As we approach the holidays, I have determined that I need more play, more often. How about you? When was the last time you laughed so hard that your face hurt? Have you done anything recently just for fun? Do you play games that engage and thrill you? This holiday season, I encourage you to think about what you have enjoyed doing in the past and see if you can play your way to gratitude.

One way to gratitude is to pay attention to your surroundings and note what catches your eye. I loved the colorful deep pastel colors of these oversized chairs on South Padre Island. This blog shares other "playful" photographs as an example of how the camera can help YOU detect what constitutes play.
One way to gratitude is to pay attention to your surroundings and note what catches your eye. I loved the colorful deep pastel colors of these oversized chairs on South Padre Island. This blog shares other “playful” photographs as an example of how the camera can help YOU detect what constitutes play.

Vacation Objectives in South Texas

My husband and I just returned from a play vacation. We spent three days with friends in Humble, TX, walking, talking, enjoying great food, exploring local parks, and playing card games and Yahtzee. Then we headed south toward the Rio Grande to birdwatch for four days.

In my most recent blog post, I shared five goals for our trip, all of which we accomplished. I focus herein on the last goal, embracing tiny moments of joy.

A deer enjoyed snacking on vegetation at Atascosita Park in Humble, Texas. We played on the huge climbing structure, walked around the urban ponds, and got pictures of the local wildlife.
A deer enjoyed snacking on vegetation at Atascosita Park in Humble, Texas. We played on the huge climbing structure, walked around the urban ponds, and got pictures of the local wildlife.

Way to Gratitude: Embrace Tiny Moments of Joy

Cesare Pevase said, “We do not remember days, we remember moments.” The tiny moments that I capture with my camera remind me of where we visited, what happened, and what sparks joy for me. Two other trips we took this year also sparked joy. They included one of my all-time favorite hikes in Moab’s Fiery Furnace, and to Alaska with our daughter. Photos highlight what matters most to us, what we want to capture, savor, and share.

How to Play Your Way to Gratitude
My first glimpse of a roseate spoonbill was at South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center.

During our visit to the Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, I took twenty minutes to explore a trail by myself. By getting away from hawk watchers, I felt myself shifting gears. I saw more. I got curious. What did the spikey-looking Spanish moss feel like? How — and why — did those snails get into the trees? And what made all that noise? (Turns out the chicken-like chachalacas make quite a ruckus!) Breaking away allowed me to find my own path toward joy.

Peccary piglets (2 of the 3 we spotted) at Hazel Bazemore park.
Peccary piglets (2 of the 3 we spotted) at Hazel Bazemore park.

TRY THIS: The next time you go for a walk, try reversing your path or exploring a new-to-you park, hike, or series of streets. Open your senses. What catches your gaze? Do you hear anything you’ve never heard before? What textures draw you to explore? What you notice informs you about what matters to you. Pay attention. Learn. Grow. Play.

A colorful, whimsical lawn ornament that caught my eye in Humble, TX.
A colorful, whimsical lawn ornament that caught my eye in Humble, TX.

Way to Gratitude: My Top Trip Stops

To remember the highlights, I made a list of the nature preserves, birding centers, pullouts, and state parks we visited. All fifteen of them. Below are the four that supplied me with the strongest joyful moments (in the order we visited them.)

South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center

Our first major stop on the way toward the Rio Grande was the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center. It was also the first time we saw many of the birds we would enjoy for four days. I was struck by the diversity of species since this center has both freshwater and saltwater ecosystems. While my husband was taken by the smooth-billed and groove-billed anis, I focused on the colorful herons, roseate spoonbills, and four massive American alligators.

One of four American Alligators at the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center.
One of four American Alligators at the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center.

Estero Llano Grande State Park

This park is six miles north of the Mexican border. During the five hours we visited, we saw 57 different bird species, including green kingfishers, olive sparrows, and a pair of pauraques which weren’t even on our target list. Bonus! Over the span of eight days, I added 47 new-to-me ebird species, moving my life list up to 611 species. For reference, there are estimated to be over 10,000 bird species worldwide and over 500 which can be seen in the state of Washington.

How to Play Your Way to Gratitude
Pauraques are nocturnal; the pair we saw returns to the exact same sleeping spot every night, every year, and they blend in so well with their surroundings that we would never have spotted them if not for other birders pointing them out.

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge

The refuge, at close to 100,000 acres, is the largest protected area of natural habitat left in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. We added several new birds to our life list including eastern meadowlarks, white-tailed, and red-shouldered hawks, and were wowed by the many thousands of birds out on the lake despite high winds and cold temperatures.

Perhaps my favorite, most colorful bird photo of the whole trip was of this northern cardinal male.
Perhaps my favorite, most colorful bird photo of the whole trip was of this northern cardinal male.

Hazel Bazemore Park

This lovely 78-acre nature preserve lies near Corpus Christi, noteworthy for its annual hawk watch. It was my personal favorite because we saw peccaries (nine, including 3 baby javelinas!), deer, and a bobcat. The only other big cat sighting I’ve had in the wild was also a bobcat, in North Carolina. Big cats are secretive, solitary, elusive, and seldom caught on film — but this time I got lucky!

A wild bobcat with breakfast in its mouth, at Hazel Bazemore County Park. The only other big cat I've seen in the wild is a bobcat in North Carolina. They are secretive, elusive, and seldom caught on film -- at least not mine!
A wild bobcat with breakfast in its mouth, at Hazel Bazemore County Park.

Defining Play for You

In her CD, The Power of Vulnerability, shame researcher Brene Brown says that play lies at the core of creativity and innovation. It’s anything that makes us lose track of time and self-consciousness, creating the space where ideas are born. This means we should not restrict play to vacations.

I’m listening. For me, playing includes rolling in a pile of leaves in the backyard with my daughter and dog. Ordering a book of card games for 3-4 people so we always have ready-made non-screen entertainment we can engage in together. Choosing a tree and decorating it as a family. Finding new recipes to experiment with in the kitchen.

The author and Ajax play in a huge pile of dry leaves.
The author and Ajax play in a huge pile of dry leaves.

TRY THIS: How do you define play? Think about moments in your past that have brought you joy. Think of what you loved as a child, or what you did last week that made you laugh out loud. What moments of play spark joy for you? Can you include more of it in your daily life? What would it take to set aside a few minutes to watch birds out your window? Can you save twenty minutes to go for a walk and focus on what intrigues you? How about an hour to visit a museum or art shop you haven’t visited in a long time? My wish for you this holiday season includes more play, fun, and joy.

Don't be a turkey! Have some fun this holiday season! Play!
Don’t be a turkey! Have some fun this holiday season! Play!

I welcome your comments, thoughts, or observations in the comments box. Happy holidays and spark (or sparkle!) on.

Published by Courtenay Schurman

Co-author of The Outdoor Athlete (2009) and Train to Climb Mt. Rainier or Any High Peak DVD (2002), author of Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills/conditioning chapter 4 (3 editions), and Peak Performance column for the Mountaineers Mag (2014-present). Member of PNWA, SCBWI, EPIC. Served on the steering committee for WOTS (2019-present). Completed UW Certificate program for Children's Literature and Memoir. Co-owner of Body Results, Inc. in Seattle. Climb leader with Seattle Mountaineers for over 15 years. Volunteer at Woodland Park Zoo since 2014.

Join the Conversation

6 Comments

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Thank you for reminding me of the importance of “play” in our lives. In our cultures, it does not seem that it is commonly depicted as a very “important” activity in and by itself… more as a reward for doing more important things FIRST (“if you finish your homework you can go and play”). I can report on the price one pays when forgetting the true importance of play: for more years than I like to admit, I was the poster boy for workaholism. It is sadly remarkable to realize that I cannot recall much “worthwhile” about these years, except very brief trips I took while working in the northeast of the US (including the not-very-original visit of Niagara Falls). I rarely took pictures… and I came out of that period almost exactly as I entered it about a decade earlier; I did not evolve much, I did not grow except in a very narrow (and now totally obsolete) technical domain! Thankfully, I found my way out of this small box after moving to the West Coast and reconnecting with my love of the outdoors. A good part of my attraction to the trails is the LUDIC aspect of discovering new landscapes, spotting elusive wildlife, finding water sources and camping spots, running unexpectedly into “Doctor Livingston, I presume” other hikers: out there, I often feel like a one-man Lewis and Clark mini expedition! It also seems like, the more I play, the more my mind is open to more ways to play. With the love of language my wife and her siblings have, I have come to greatly enjoy wordplay! No equipment needed, no long drives to “get there”: always available! Which of course leads to HUMOR in all its forms (or do you prefer Humour? 😊); life would be nearly unsufferable without it. Finally, you are so right about pictures! I can pick almost any one of the 200 millions I snapped (slight exaggeration) and go “right back there” instantaneously, remembering how I felt right then, the moments that lead to that instant, the breeze, the heat, the storm that soon followed, etc.
    I am slightly overusing that “trick”… but, to conclude, I would say JOYWARD! Not a bad direction to follow when coming to the legendary “fork in the road” (or the trail).

    1. Thanks for the comment, Gerard! Your statement about workaholism probably resonates with many and reminds me of a lesson I want to gently teach my daughter, who is all about working hard at school on her classwork (but hasn’t yet found her tribe or other joyful activities in this first quarter of college. There’s time.) The moments I remember most from college are NOT study-based but people, trip, and movement based, but I always assumed that was just me. I think, as you put it, “The more we play, the more we open our minds to more ways to play.” Here, here!! Aptly put. Love that. Humor. Wordplay. Joyward. All great nuggets. So missed your comments and I’m glad to have you back sharing insights and musings! May the holiday season spark joy, give you lots of opportunities to smile and laugh, and yes, onward and JOYWARD!

  2. I so enjoyed these beautiful photos! Thanks for reminding me of the power of play.

  3. Great blog. I love it. So grateful I know you. I can tell you and Doug have a fantastic time. You took stunning capture of the birds and wildlife. Great comment about remembering moments, not days. A photo can take you back to a moment. This is a great hobby to have. And you are great at blogging.

    Keep doing it. Happy Thanksgiving!

    1. Silvie Marie, I so appreciate your comments to my posts. Reader comments keep me blogging!

      Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours, and keep shooting as well. I always enjoy seeing your interpretations of our prompts on CY365.