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The Urgency of Playfulness

“But if you observe children who are two or three years old, if you see how they behave, they are playing all the time. You see them laughing all the time. Their imagination is so powerful, and the way dream is an adventure of exploration. When something is wrong they react and defend themselves, but then they just let go and turn their attention to the moment again, to play again, to explore and have fun again. They are living in the moment. They are not ashamed of the past; they are not worried about the future…

The happiest moments in our lives are when we are playing just like children, we are singing and dancing, when we are exploring and creating just for fun. It is wonderful when we behave like a child because this is the normal human tendency. As children, we are innocent and it is natural for us to express love. But what has happened to us? What has happened to the whole world?” – Don Miguel Ruiz

Last week I was meant to be setting off on an adventure on the other side of the world. Instead, I found myself setting off for the emergency room down the road.

It was here I spent six hours with a doctor who was on the tail-end of a fourteen hour shift, and was by this point running purely on red bull. He was lingering in my room because two of the nurses on the ward that night were ex-lovers of his and it was “all just a bit awkward out there.” Why he thought this was vital information at three in the morning for a girl who thought she could feel her vital organs turning inside out, i’ll never know. But between giving me popsicles and telling me he was going to prescribe me a spoonful of cement to “harden up” it turned out to be one of the funniest hospital experiences of my life. And it made me wonder why more people didn’t roll through the world like that. Not necessarily over-caffeinated, sleep deprived and debatably inappropriate, but with a playful spirit and an inclination toward funny, imperfect human exchanges. ‘Cause as far as i’m concerned, it just seems to make life better.

After I was sent home I had a lot of time to think about this idea of play and playfulness. That night, I discovered the documentary “Tarja Branca“. Tarja Branca, Portuguese for ‘drops of joy’ explores the urgent and serious business of playing and playfulness. It emphasizes the idea that we need to reclaim that playful childhood spirit that gets forced out of us in adult life. In the documentary, ethnomusicologist Alberto Ikeda, says that playing is how we as children start making our first social contacts. It’s how we train, measure strengths and build ourselves as human beings.

“Playing opens a new time and space in a connection that is a bond,” says teacher Maria Amelia Pereira, “when a child plays, it’s just them and the world. Because a child doesn’t live to play – playing is living. When a child is playing they are totally responding to their own lives. Life is expressing itself inside them.”

Let’s let that sink in for a minute. Totally responding to their own lives. To the absolute present. The real stuff. Not responding to fear-based predictions of the future. Not responding to that voice in our heads that likes to sometimes say, ‘Hey, remember that time months ago when you epically screwed up/ embarrassed yourself/ made a really poor decision?’

So, if play is the act of responding to our own lives, why are we not responding fully to our own lives more often? In book The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky writes that 54% of U.S. adults “lack great enthusiasm for life and are not actively and productively engaged with the world.”

So, why do we lose our playfulness?

It boils down to three factors.

• It ain’t fashionable

There are 45,000 articles on melancholy and depression in specialized U.S. psychology journals, says analyst Ricardo Goldenberg. There are less than 400 on joy. “Joy is not fashionable,” Goldenberg explains. “What’s fashionable is panic, depression, medicalization of daily life.”

• Individual wing-clippin’

We are born with 100% of potential to be free,” says writer and songwriter Braulio Tavares,“on principle, a child can do anything and become anything.” But this full spectrum of possibility is slowly culled as the child is told what they can and can’t say or do over a long period of time. If they don’t get the required score on a standardized test, doors will shut. If they don’t have what is deemed the necessary height or strength for a certain sport, or talent for particular instrument, doors will shut. If the opinions they choose to voice are seen as abrasive or too ‘out there’ or uncomfortable, doors will shut. Doors of possibility slowly start to close and expectations are readjusted accordingly each time. As we grow older, we not only have these outside factors telling us what we can and can’t do, we also develop that inner monologue of doubt as well. Plus we now have bills to pay, societal expectations to meet. Before we know it, that 100% of potential to be free we once had is now starting to look like 0.02%.

• Society!

“The way society’s machine is organized requires a considerable number of people, maybe half of the population or more, to do things they don’t like for eight hours a day,” says Tavares. “Because you need to survive you give up your inner child. This creative, imaginative, free, spontaneous playful person able to improvise. To see the unexpected, the new, the different in everything… so that you can fit into the machine.”

As individuals we are still largely valued on our productivity over anything else. Any notion of play is still largely seen as indulgent, a way to avoid responsibilities. In parts of Brazil, they hold not parties, but “frolics,” music, dance, energy, and joy. Perhaps different contexts, different costumes, but at the core of these frolics is the playfulness we once all knew as children.

It’s time we stop seeing play as subordinate, and start getting serious about living a playful life. It’s urgent.

Living a playful life doesn’t mean you don’t work hard or study hard. You can live a playful life and still make the intelligent, well-informed choices and decisions of a grown-ass [wo]man. It just means being present more often, responding directly to your own life more. It means less philosophizing about future situations down the track, less looking back on things you wish you could change. It means waking up energized, curious and hopeful. And ultimately means taking more time to do all the things that make you laugh and smile including surfing, dancing, painting, singing, playing! Whatever it is, this should be part of your daily life, and never feel guilty for the time you allot to it. Playtime should be a top priority! After all, why are we here if it’s not to have a great time?

Words by Caitlin Creeper

Feature image by Amanda Kutaka