Becoming child-like: How to play

Children like to play. Now you’d think that that would be a universal, human trait. Playfulness seems so close to happiness. In reality, though, most of us don’t play, except kids.


I’d like to copy these kids. You?

This is what I did. First, I brainstormed some words that I associate with playfulness. This is what I came up with:

  • Humorous
  • Energetic
  • Smiling
  • Laughing
  • Carefree
  • Festive
  • Positive
  • Lighthearted
  • Spontaneous
  • Fun

To me, that sounds pretty awesome. And it sounds pretty childish too, in a good way. Your list might be a little different, but let’s see if we can distill some of this down to something that can help you and I become more playful.

Playfulness is interested in feeling fun

Your list, my list… it doesn’t matter. All of it centers on feeling fun. Smiles and laughter are expressions of joy. Other words – like carefree, positive, lighthearted, and spontaneous – hint at the type of attitude that allows for playfulness. Finally, you have others that point to specific things kids (anyone, really) do when they’re playful: they joke around, like everything is a game or a party, with tons of energy.

So you have three things, and they all contribute to playfulness:

  1. Attitude
  2. Actions
  3. Expressions

I was watching a friend’s son the other day play with a toy Piggy Bank. He would stick the extra large, multicolored coins into the extra large slot on the top of the bank. The pig would fill up, and then we would take out the coins and do it again. No big deal. But this kid was having a blast, smiling, inserting the coins as fast as his little hands would let him.

I think too often when you and I, grownups, try to play, we only focus on part of playfulness. Maybe we’ll get the actions down, playing Hide-N-Seek, but forget to giggle while trying to hide. Or we’ll want to have fun but feel too self-conscious to let it all hang out on the living room, dance floor.

Playfulness is just that: the courage to embrace all of it, the attitude, the actions, and the expressions. It’s going all in to have fun, forgetting our serious self-image. Kids do that by nature. The rest of us have to relearn it.

And here’s why…

Playfulness is NOT interested in productivity

Somewhere between childhood and adulthood, we learned that productivity is king. Sacrificing present fun for future rewards, that’s the mark of maturity. How can we accomplish as much as possible in the least amount of time with the least amount of effort?

Kids don’t get that. If you ask a young child what she did today, she could totally tell you:

  • I helped mother sew ribbons onto my ballet shoes.
  • I drew daddy a picture of a pony.
  • I played hopscotch with Bethany.

But if you ask her what she accomplished, she’ll probably hesitate. Most young children don’t know what accomplishment means. Even if they answer, they’ll usually mention an accomplishment that will mean absolutely nothing the next day, even to them.

Sure, the ribbons on the ballet shoes might come in handy next week, but you can almost guarantee that’s not why she cared about the project.

Nah, she cared because she enjoyed helping her mom. That’s fun, especially when it involves sewing and ballet. When she was drawing that pony, she didn’t try to conserve blue crayon. She was just playing.

I like that.

So now to learn it.

How to learn playfulness

Let’s take it in steps:

  1. Understand what playfulness is
  2. Understand the motivation for playfulness
  3. Understand what playfulness feels like
  4. Understand how to act playful

We’ve already covered a little about what playfulness is, so let’s get into how to apply it in our own lives.

  • The motivation for playfulness: If you’re pessimistic about life in general, you’ll assume it’s impossible to have fun all the time. Young kids don’t think that. They might realize life isn’t always fun, but they still think it can be. For them, living on ice cream at Disneyland is still possible. For you and I to fully embrace playfulness in our lives, we have to believe it’s possible. We have to be so insanely thankful that we know satisfaction is possible. Most adults, including me, don’t know that, not completely.
  • The feeling of playfulness: Giddiness. That’s the best word I can come up with to describe the feeling. It’s like when you’ve had a little too much coffee and sugar, not jittery yet, but where you’re like, “I’ve got to do something. Let’s do something. What do you want to do?” It’s a paradox. You’re so satisfied that you want to change it. Or, really, you want to share it. Nothing is serious. Everything is a game, and you want everyone to join in.
  • Playfulness in action: Once you have those first two parts, the motivation behind you and the feeling inside, the rest is easy. It’s basically whatever happens. That’s why it’s so spontaneous. For instance, try doing something that gets you absolutely nowhere. Do something, not nothing, but still get nowhere and enjoy it. That’s playfulness.

It starts with gratitude, builds into giddiness, and finally expresses itself in spontaneity. If you try to be spontaneous without the giddiness, it doesn’t work. If you try to be giddy without the gratitude, it doesn’t work. You need all three parts in the correct order.

That’s why we mess it up so badly. We try to play Hide-N-Seek without the joy that motivates it. We go into it without any fun and then turn around and say, “Hey, look… this isn’t any fun.” You can try all the tactics in the world – always smile, laugh with everyone, make eye contact – but without the starting point, it all falls flat.

Children don’t have to understand this. It’s built into them. But the rest of us, as I said before, have to relearn it. Thankfully, it’s not that hard. Sometimes, it’s as easy as giving ourselves permission.

…permission to not be productive.

…permission to have fun.

…permission to be a kid.

“A merry heart does good, like medicine, but a broken spirit dries the bones.” -Proverbs 17:22

Serving Suggestions:

(1) Hang out with people who are ridiculously thankful. Pay attention to what they appreciate. Copy that.

(2) Hang out with kids. Let them play with you, jump on you, run with you. They’ll rub off on you if you let them.

(3) As you’re going through your daily habits, ask yourself, “How can I do this playfully? Or how would I do this if I felt playful?” Better yet, “What would a kid do?”

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