Play is the work of childhood.

Jean Piaget

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

St. Paul

1st Corinthians 13:11

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WORKING WITH PLAY

"It takes an adult to be childlike"

Being at play is an inward state that manifests outwardly. We play first within ourselves. Play begins as an interior action, and only we can take it.

Imagine going to work and playing all day. No child would think that impossible, and very few adults would not hold the opposite view.

 

In our adult world, work is work and play is play. They are separate worlds with clearly delineated boundaries. But why don’t children follow the same model? Why do they play all the time? Play is something natural to them. They need no prompting.

 

To paraphrase Piaget, The work of childhood is to play.

 

If play is so natural to the child, perhaps it is worthwhile to examine why, as adults, we don’t also work with a playful mind. When we lose the quality of play in the professional activities to which we devote so much of our lives, we may find that our work-life becomes joyless, predictable and increasingly meaningless.

 

When that happens, we know that something feels terribly wrong with our lives but we are at a loss as to what to do about it. After all, we are responsible adults, and adults work. So we continue in our jobs, all the while knowing that this is not the right path for us. Maybe we look for a new position, a different company, or another team within the organization to work with. Perhaps we can find a temporary solution, but until we can diagnose what is actually wrong, the cycle will repeat itself endlessly.

 

And this is not simply a matter of “life-balance.” No weekend ski-trip, boating expedition, or game of golf can offer enough joy to replace the daily grind that denies the qualities of playfulness at work.

 

So, if the work of children is to play, the work of adults is to rediscover the play of the child and to make a place for it in their adult lives. Not just on vacation, not just on weekends, but also at work.

 

Play is a natural state of humanity. Could we not reaffirm that knowledge with the adult with us now fully empowered to reclaim that play?

 

Work is productive, and has responsibilities of which the child on the playground knows nothing. Yet it is up to us to find a playful way to work.

 

If you could return to the sandbox what might you see? There is effort and also laughter. There are adults to allow children to engage. They know the value of the playground. Social fabrics are born here. Life skills and appreciation of the rules of fairness are nurtured there. Wisdom and maturity also take place there, although they might be described instead as “parenting”.

 

Play has specific qualities and children model them perfectly. They include a light touch, humor, wonder, innocence, and curiosity. Play has joy, the unexpected, and the unknown. And players take on roles too. They suspend belief; they open up possibilities and re-imagine identities. They play with power without believing they are powerful. They fall down and get back up. They create games and reinvent them when they aren’t working anymore.  Play takes place in a friendly, trusting atmosphere. It is not self-conscious. Play embraces no shame.

 

Working with play looks at those qualities and asks what about them could be brought into our professional lives. What wisdom? What joy? When shall we laugh and with whom? Is there a place for role-play? How do we suspend judgment? Must everything be so structured? Is there not also a time for improvisation? How do we play with power? Who is in charge of the games, and what would it take to reinvent them when they begin to break down?

 

If all this talk about “working with play” sounds like it is encouraging you to run away from responsibilities, or turn back the clock, nothing could be further from the truth. It is the opposite. We are actually discussing becoming a whole person again!

 

It takes an adult to be childlike.

 

We can agree with St. Paul about putting aside childish things, but hold to the premise that we should not also remove childlike things. Inherently we know that the difference between being childish and being childlike is between acting with selfish immaturity and retaining a quality of wonder tinted with the perspectives of age.

The freedom to work playfully implies levels of self-control we had not yet learned when we were last in the sandbox.

To be childlike is actually to transcend childishness. Indeed the very qualities that make workplaces dysfunctional are often childish qualities. Frankly, they are the very things that beckoned the parent to intervene on the playground. We learned our childish skills there too, and this may be why we have pushed play so completely out of our work lives. The freedom to work playfully implies levels of self-control we had not yet learned when we were last in the sandbox. Working with play is not defensive in nature. It does not need to protect ground.

We can teach ourselves how to work playfully.

 

Being at play is an inward state that manifests outwardly. We play first within ourselves. Play begins as an interior action, and only we can take it.

 

We could, for instance, take on a childlike viewpoint, looking at familiar things with new eyes. This is a way of seeing “for the first time” even those things it knows quite well. A childlike viewpoint from an adult perspective notices the habits of expectations and it suspends them, allowing what is arising to actually appear clearly. Without a pre-made template of thought, new ideas and opinions can emerge. To see as if for the first time is to become able to discover something new in the most familiar things.

 

Emotional safety is a pre-requisite for play.

 

It is important to look at work culture and ask if the workers – the participants in potential play - are truly safe to risk themselves in a playful approach to their jobs. There is nothing more dangerous than to encourage play and then to accept an environment that bullies the players. One of the benefits of encouraging a playful work environment is the impact it has on creativity. Play is innately creative, but a culture of judgment, shame and aggression immediately results in the inhibition of play. Behavioral norms in a playful environment draw upon respect for the players.

 

To play is to be completely in the present.

 

Finally, there is always one quality common to all forms of play: that of complete immersion in the moment. Children lose all sense of time while playing. They may be surprised to hear a parent say that it is time to go home from the playground. How could it be time when there is no such thing as time while one is playing?

 

Perhaps the next visit you make to a playground will confirm this viewpoint as you watch the children playing.  There is no destination when you sit down on a swing. A seesaw takes you nowhere; except to now.

The degrees to which we ruminate and worry about the past and the future represent the size of the obstacles we create to keep us from playing. We cannot play in the past; nor can we play in the future. Environments that constantly take us out of the present moment cannot serve as spaces for play.

We cannot play in the past; nor can we play in the future.

We construct businesses, work environments and cultures around the things and values that are most important to us. Efficiency and productivity are laudable values, but so are joy and wonder. If we are going to spend our adult lives working, there really is no reason at all that we should not simultaneously be playing too.

©2017 John Thomas Dodson All Rights Reserved

No part pf this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from the author.

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