I was always a shy and timid kid. I’m not exactly sure if I just came that way, or if I learned to be scared of people (and myself) at an early age. I do know that I was most often an observer, not a participator. I would keep to myself along the perimeter of the social action, watching others play and laugh. When I felt more comfortable, though, I enjoyed interacting and playing with the other kids.
It must have been on one of those comfortable days when I first remember the natural playfulness being squashed out of me.
I have a distinct memory for one event from my childhood. I was in kindergarten and can clearly picture the scene. There was to be a film shown in class that day (on actual film — I’m dating myself here). My hair was likely tied up in two pigtails with differing coloured yarn — red on one side and yellow on the other. The kids in the class were instructed to move their chairs into rows so that they could face the screen and we all sat fidgeting while the teacher set up the film projector.
At five years old, I loved playing pranks. I thought it would be fun to crawl around on the floor and untie everyone’s shoelaces while they were paying attention to the screen at the front. To me, it was amusing and harmless (apparently my five year old mind didn’t conceive of the possible tripping injuries and subsequent lawsuits). I was just playing.
As soon as my teacher discovered this, she admonished me and sent me straight to the cloakroom as punishment. I spent the entirety of the film crying softly to myself while everyone else was watching a cartoon. I was obviously a bad kid if I had to be punished, and I didn’t want to be bad.
I learned then that it wasn’t okay to be playful. I didn’t have my adult rational mind which knows that shunning is a form of shame. I didn’t understand that I was causing frustration to the teacher by being disruptive. I didn’t understand that it was more accepted for boys to be disruptive than for girls to act out.
My child mind felt the shame of punishment and banning, and formed the belief that I had to be good so I couldn’t be playful. So I began to do everything the teacher told me, and I withdrew again. Sometimes I noticed that other kids got to be disruptive and playful and weren’t punished (I guess it depended on the current stress level of the teacher), so I internalized that it was just me that caused problems.
Oy vey. What leaps of logic! How can such a simple interaction — one that happens every minute of every day in every school — form such a belief in me? I must have been “overly sensitive,” right?
And it didn’t end there! Over the years of being good and getting good grades, I learned that I had to work hard and continue to please my parents and then my bosses. There was always someone in authority, even in adulthood. There were roles to play and expectations to be met. To be good and mature, I had to be serious. All the damn time.
In meeting those roles and expectations, and in following a belief I had set when I was five, I forgot that I could be playful.
Playfulness and Immaturity
The great thing about kids is that they are still in the place of pure presence, before the general indoctrination of rules and expectations from the adults in their lives and from society at large. They are expected to be “immature” — if we apply the definition of lacking the development of someone who is older. It is natural for a child to be immature, but not natural for an adult to be immature.
Kids are responding to their worlds out of an emotional place and haven’t yet been taught to “regulate” their emotions (I hate that term in relation to emotions — it’s so controlling! More on that in another post…)
If a child isn’t expected to be able to perceive and respond in a socialized manner, the parents step in to teach the child how to play “nice.” It is becomes a “teachable moment.”
Thus, my “go to the cloakroom for disrupting the class” experience.
On the other hand, we adults must be considered mature and highly developed, because we are “in charge” of stuff. And we’re, well, old.
The confusing and complex part is that we as adults haven’t necessarily been taught to “regulate” our emotions properly either. We might have more foresight to see what might happen due to our actions, but aren’t necessarily in tune with what our true feelings or motivations are.
We’ve all been in the presence of someone who is trying to be playful but it all seems to go pear-shaped and we cringe in embarrassment or judgment. Just think about “playful teasing,” or hazing, or “April Fools” jokes.
Usually those cringeworthy times are when the playfulness results in someone getting hurt, emotionally or physically. In these cases, the one who is being playful is truly in the moment, responding or reacting to what he or she is feeling inside and fails to adjust for future potential consequences.
If the playful person is feeling joy and peace and love, the playfulness will take into consideration the feelings of those with whom he or she is playing.
If the playful person is actually feeling angry or powerless or fearful, the playfulness will reflect that and is more likely to hurt someone else.
It’s one thing to go into someone’s room when they’re away and turn all of their possessions (and I mean all of them — pictures, furniture, books, clothes) upside down (my university RA Jonno probably doesn’t even remember that now… I hope).
But it’s another thing to play pranks on someone who knows he or she is a helpless target, because the “jokers” want to feel powerful. It’s another thing to leave someone feeling vulnerable or helpless. It’s another thing to tease someone for their perceived weaknesses because we want to feel strong. It’s another thing to retaliate, even if it seems funny, because we are frustrated and angry with someone.
So where is the line? What is healthy playfulness and what is considered immature in adults?
Playfulness is healthy in adults when it comes from a feeling of presence, joy, love, and equality. Playfulness is unhealthy when it comes from unrecognized desires for power, significance, or judgment.Healthy play comes from joy and love; unhealthy play comes from power and control games.Click To Tweet
When we want to incorporate more playfulness into our lives as adults, we are hopefully intending to create healthy play which means we need to become aware of the emotions and beliefs that are motivating the play.
How healthy playfulness gets shut down
What if what we call “maturity” or “development” is marked by the wild acceptance of false beliefs which have been foisted on us from our youth? Roles, rules, shoulds, musts, have tos, labels, comparisons, judgments — all of these are formed by mutual subconscious collusion, but it doesn’t make them necessarily true.
I can’t play, because I have to work to put food on the table.
Adults should be the mature ones.
Playing is for kids — I’ll just watch them from a distance.
I’m too old for kick-the-can and costumes!
If I play, people will think I’m being stupid.
Play stuff is just fantasy and silliness — I prefer to be firmly grounded in reality.
Creativity is just for artists. I don’t have an artistic bone in my body.
I’m too exhausted to play.
These are the kinds of beliefs that we get subconsciously conditioned to as we grow older. We mistake playfulness for immaturity or not being serious enough.
We also get waylaid when we look at taking time for playfulness as being selfish. If we have lots of responsibilities and people to take care of, taking time for ourselves can feel indulgent.
We need to really open up our beliefs about what it means to be a present, playful, joyful human being. It doesn’t mean we forego the responsibilities of adult life. It doesn’t mean we’ve lost touch with reality or are devolving into immaturity, or we are selfish. It means we become more present and connected to the children within us, who rightly refuse to grow up. Because growing up can get really freaking tedious and boring without playfulness. Playfulness also connects us to love: we become more loving towards ourselves, which in turn makes us want to be more connected with our loved ones.Playfulness connects us more deeply: we become more loving towards ourselves, and that makes us want to be more connected with our loved ones.Click To Tweet
Reclaiming playfulness as adults
If you need to reconnect with playfulness, just watch some kids in action (but not in a creepy way). Don’t look at them with adult eyes: regard them as if you were their age. What are they excited about? What are they thinking about? How are they feeling? Why would you want to join them? What qualities do they have? How does their creativity show up?
You’ll probably find answers something like the following:
- They aren’t thinking about future worries (except maybe that they need to pee or are hungry for dinner, but they’re not stressed out about deadlines or death or their to-do lists). They are mostly in the present.
- They are laughing and/or completely engaged in what they are doing.
- They get taken out of this joyful place only when there is conflict — someone isn’t being fair, or is being mean, or acting out of subconscious emotions.
- They have no particular reason for play, other than they just feel like it.
- They don’t have to schedule play into the calendar. Even if their parents hadn’t arranged play dates, they would still find some way to amuse themselves.
- They don’t naturally beat themselves up for not being creative enough or doing something well enough. They learn this from adults, or other children who have learned it from adults.
It’s time to make room for grown up play time (I mean the PG version, you guys!). So let’s consider the ways in which we can reclaim our inner kids:
- Find a way to connect to the joyful, loving feeling place within you. This can be done in whatever way that works for you: dance around to music you love, make a gratitude list, find things you appreciate about yourself and your loved ones, be in nature, whatever truly makes you feel good.
- Get into the flow. When you’re in the flow and feeling good, you’re completely in the present moment. You’re immersed in the details of what is happening right now. Time passes without awareness. You can’t play and be stressed or worried at the same time.
- Leave room in the schedule. Over-scheduled people have no room for spontaneity. The to-do list takes precedence over presence. We all need some blank space in the schedule so we can refuel with something other than obligations. Sometimes we just want to relax, and sometimes we have energy for something more.
- Find your creativity. It is a myth that there are creative people and non-creative people. It’s just about creating something, not necessarily something artistic. What is it that you like creating? Is it creating a beautiful meal? A business plan? A luscious garden? Just create something that is going to allow you to really enjoy the process — even if the end product doesn’t turn out as well as you hope. It’s not the result, but the unfolding of the presence that matters.
- Reconnect with games. I recently learned that I love doing jigsaw puzzles. Some people love playing card games, or sports, or laser-tag. Again, whatever floats your boat.
- Play with kids, instead of just observing them play. If you’re a parent, or are a close adult to a child, you’ll be around them a lot. They’ll be playing. Join them. Play alongside them — get immersed in their worlds. They’ll love it, especially if you encourage their imaginations to run wild. Let them guide the play and allow yourself to be in the childlike state for a while.
Leave a comment below and tell us how you feel about being a playful adult — is it something you give yourself permission to do? If not, why not? If yes, tell us how you make room for playing!
Keep shining the insight light,