When was the last time you watched kids playing? Maybe it was your own children, nieces, nephews, or grandkids. Maybe you babysat for a friend or went to their house.
Not long ago I was visiting with a friend—a mother of two boys ages 3 & 4. These two little guys knew how to PLAY! I watched them as they got out their toy workbench. They had a small plastic hammer, screwdriver, and saw.
Now, we’d expect they’d play “building,” right? Surprisingly, no. I asked them what was going on with their clearly engaging and elaborate play.
“This guy is a plane,” Simon told me, referring to the saw. “Then Davey has the sword,” referring to the screwdriver his little brother was holding. “He has to fly in this guy over the mountain before he falls in the lava. Then he has to get the bear with his sword, but I’m the wizard and I’m going to put a spell on him.”
This was pretty wild, fun, and involved play (at one point I believe Davey hit Simon with the saw and there were tears). Mom sat back, coolly watching.
“Do they always get this involved in their play?”
“Oh yeah—this is totally normal stuff at our house.”
When kids play, sometimes they get quite serious. Yes, there’s an element of fun and joy to play (of course), but it’s also completely engrossing. Play is mindful. Kids play to learn, it’s true, but it’s not all mimicry of “real life.” Davey might not grow up to become a bear-fighting pilot-fencer. Simon probably won’t become a wizard.
Remember when you were a child and played with your favorite toys, making up stories with your action figures or stuffed animals?
One day you were a zookeeper and veterinarian.
One day maybe you were a princess or prince.
One day you were an architect of great cities.
One day you were a movie hero or heroine, saving the day.
Didn’t it feel great?
Then, as we get older, what happens? A friend tells us our uninhibited play is “babyish,” or “there’s no such thing as…” We start to learn boundaries. Around age 7 or 8 we start to reign in our play to a specific set of parameters and socially acceptable guidelines.
As we become adults this reigning in continues. Even if we play on a community sports league or throw back a few glasses of wine and dance at a wedding, we’re still self-conscious. We’re still worried about doing what’s socially acceptable—what we think we should do. How we should “adult.”
In truth—what would happen if you allowed yourself to push beyond those barriers and really PLAY?
I recall an “aha” moment as I was writing my book The One Decision, which I actually went on to share in the book:
Play is the secret to happiness. When we play, we’re engaged and allowing ourselves to “let go.” We’re having fun. We’re challenging ourselves. Play strengthens our connections with others and is good for our relationships. Life becomes an experiment, where trial and error are allowed and encouraged. Rules no longer apply.
So, how can we take these ideas of play and incorporate them into our daily lives?
Let go of these self-imposed rules. Allow yourself to engage with others. Be emotional, be alive, and imaginative. Learn, discover, create! Allow creativity to flow through you—don’t worry if you’re not good at it or compare yourself to others. Let go and jump in.
Children are constantly discovering. This is why the world is so full and interesting to us as kids—we’re stimulated by all there is to take in. We can get our sense of wonder and aliveness back, simply by allowing ourselves to experience something new.
Want to figure out how to start playing?
Visit a museum and spend time really examining and getting drawn in by a piece of artwork. Go to a concert and get swept into the music. Listen to the radio or an album and dance!
Take on a creative pursuit you’ve never attempted before—painting, dancing, theater (plenty of pretend and imagination), comedy, or another form of expression. Sculpt with clay, decoupage, or paint. Allow yourself to freely experiment.
Play a sport, throw a ball, hit with a racket, swing on a swing. Don’t feel like you need to be athletic to go for it. Ride a bike or scooter. Roller-skate! Do an activity even if you fear a minor scrape or injury—part of play is allowing ourselves to experience hurt—physical hurt, OR the emotional hurt of embarrassment or self-consciousness. It’s okay.
If you attend a sporting event or watch your favorite sport, get into it! Part of the fun is rooting for a team based on arbitrary factors, luck, and circumstance. Cheer for the home team or cheer for the away team. Simply have a good time.
Find opportunities to turn the mundane into play too. How can you make a game of your next trip to the supermarket, project at work, or household chore? It sounds difficult but think like a kid. Can you time yourself? Challenge yourself somehow (talk to every person you see wearing black shoes at the store, pretend you get 10 points for every accounting error you find on a spreadsheet, or clean the house doing your best Mrs. Doubtfire impression)? You can still get serious work accomplished, without taking it too seriously.
Play is the secret to happiness; a way to awaken and enliven our souls. It leaves us feeling energized. It fuels us toward new ways of thinking and new epiphanies. It keeps us feeling young, vibrant, joyful, and upbeat. If you want to experience a zest for life—play!
For more ways to discover purpose and joy in your life, please visit us a www.wrightfoundation.org. We’re excited to share many of our courses available for download at a special, introductory price as well. Don’t miss this exciting opportunity to explore and learn more about yourself!
Dr. Judith Wright is a media favorite, sought-after inspirational speaker, respected leader, peerless educator, bestselling author, & world-class coach.
She is a co-founder of The Wright Foundation and the Wright Graduate University.
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The Wright Foundation for the Realization of Human Potential is a leadership institute located in Chicago, Illinois. Wright Foundation performative learning programs are integrated into the curriculum at Wright Graduate University.