What can we learn from how children play?

I’ve been musing lately on ‘play’. What does play feel like? How is it different to work?

In child’s play we often create fanciful notions which we operate within – imagine we are astronauts, mummies, horses, fashion designers, or imagine I can only bark, or am a fish swimming, or that I can only repeat what you say and not conjure words of my own. Imagine that, pretend it is real, but we know it is not, and then lets see how things feel in this new reality. We also mimic and express things which we know and our co-players know are not ‘true’, or at least are just one version of reality. We might speak in an extra gruff voice, or make claims that we know are absurd. There is humour in play, a trying on in play.

In play we often lose track of time. We complain when play time stops and people ask us to rejoin the world. To ‘go home now’. To ‘leave the park’. Some play is the feeling of bodies, the swinging, sliding, climbing of bodies, the fun of chasing and being chased.

Play is often emergent, the ‘rules’ if there are any, are unspoken, co-created and changing. Apart from the adult world of board games and ball games, child’s play is often without a category, without rules. They don’t say ‘let’s play dollies, let’s do that for fifteen minutes, and we’ll enact being their parents, and your character will be… and mine will be…’. It’s improvisational, but beyond improvisation – the game could change mid way to another, the stairs of the stage could become the location, the aisle, or one of us could get tired and wander off alone.

The binding rules of self determined play are few, except to do what you feel, follow what interests you, be ‘playful’ (not tied to reality nor your fixed image of self, see humour in situations, share humour with me at the fanciful nature of this thing which is positioning ourselves in the world, be willing to change direction, be willing to follow what we both find enjoyable), and to only do what interests or pleases you. If you get tired, wander away and curl up on a step and have a sleep. If you want to throw the dollies now, throw the dollies. To be tied neither by convention, nor what we were doing five minutes ago seems part and parcel of play. Play also seems to require complete engagement, to bbe in it. And when it’s over to let it go. It does not, in children, become the fodder of analysis. It does not become raw material to be picked through, counted, reflected on, systematised, idolised, problematised.

It is.

It happens, you like it, you would like to do more, you stop, you maintain the yearning to do it again, and at a later stage, with just a moment’s window of opportunity, you will do it again.


So how can we replicate this approach and bring it to what we do in work and life? How can we subtly adjust our days so that we allow for time to play and the fanciful, ever-changing, in the mount-ness of play?

By play I don’t mean something frivolous or without meaning – but something self directed, emergent, with whimsy and pleasure, where we explore our selves, our world and let loose and expand our notion of who we are, without fear of judgement and without wanting to gain approval. And we gain access to the powerful imaginal world, and the world of metaphor and story.

What does this feel like for you?  I’d love to hear your thoughts below. How do YOU do it? How do you bring play into your day?