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No. 149. Why did we stop playing?

I remember when I first became a mother that a strong sense swept over me that I now needed to grow up. I must put away childish things and become a serious, responsible adult. Whether I did or not I can’t remember, I think I probably did for a while.

Then, when my children were growing, I worried that I wouldn’t be able to provide the kind of fun that I’d like them to have. There hadn’t been a lot of fun in my childhood so I had few reference experiences or parental models to draw on. As time went by I learnt something that quite surprised me, and brought me much relief; there was only one thing I needed to do for my children to have fun and that was to let them. I didn’t have to make silly faces or play rough and tumble games or take them to theme parks, I just had to sit back and let them do something that clearly came quite naturally to them. I could join in if I wanted to, and they liked it when I did, but it wasn’t essential. They played make-believe, they dressed up, they choreographed dances to favourite records, they did downright silly things, amidst gales of hysterical laughter. They bewildered and delighted me with their capacity to entertain themselves.

Another thing I noticed as a parent was that when we went to a museum or art gallery or stately home there would usually be some sort of special activity for children. Often it was a treasure hunt, sometimes there would be people dressed up in traditional clothes of the time, there might be pictures to draw, objects to find, questions to answer. The people who designed all these activities had one thing in common, they clearly realised that for children to enjoy a visit to such a place they needed to have fun. I thoroughly enjoyed these activities! (Adults, of course, don’t need such things, they are happy with a printed sheet telling them the year that a particular wing was built, or an audio guide drawing their attention to an artist’s brushstrokes.)

It is not difficult to see where it all starts, this fun apartheid. One day we are in primary school, painting and modelling, growing beans in jars, watching tadpoles turn into frogs, singing happy songs. We have one main teacher and stay in one main classroom. All our lessons are illustrated and made fun by teachers that know they need to do this to keep our attention. The next day we move into secondary school. All of a sudden we have ten different teachers in ten different classrooms, none of whom know our name. The picture books and coloured crayons disappear, instead we have weighty text books with small print. No longer do we pick flowers and look at their petals and stamens and roots, now we look at diagrams in books and try to memorise the labels.

I know that this is a generalisation and there will be many variations, nevertheless in pretty well all instances the transition from junior to senior school is a brutal one and it is all so extraordinarily sudden. And the message is very clear - you are now expected to be a grown up, and grown ups are very serious and rather boring.

When my younger daughter was doing her GCSEs she became very despondent. ‘It’s all so pointless,’ she said. ‘I work hard to get good exam results so that I can then work hard and get more good exam results, so that I can then go to university and work hard for more exams, and my reward, if I do well, is to get a job and work hard for the rest of my life.’ This is the same person who said, only months before, ‘I don’t really want to grow up – all my friends are fun and lively, and I look at adults and they’re all miserable and bored.’ And we thought the facts of life were about sex.

We may have some understanding of how we forgot the art of playing, but a more interesting question is why? Engineer John Cohn in his talk, The Importance of Play, says ‘Life has a way of wringing the fun out of you, and we forget to have fun.’ We just forget. It’s not that we lose the ability, the capacity for fun never leaves us, it just gets buried deep under other priorities, and we forget we ever had it.

One of the reasons this happens, he says, is that the adult world is so preoccupied with productivity. Productive activity is good, the message is, unproductive activity is bad, therefore you must plan to be productive at all times. ‘If the purpose (of an activity) is more important than the act of doing it then it probably isn’t play,’ he says.

Another unhelpful belief many adults have is that play should be competitive. Many government ministers of education have said that competitive sports should be prioritised in schools. And yet I do not remember my children’s self-constructed games ever entailing competition.

Definition of a game: ‘A voluntary attempt to overcome an unnecessary challenge’ Anon.

And yet, paradoxically, play is productive. A study that was done in the US took some students and split them randomly into two groups. One group was told: Do this creative task and your output will be measured. The other group was told: Do this creative task and pretend you’re seven years old. The latter group were 30% more productive.

‘In every job that must be done there is an element of fun, you find the fun and snap the job’s a game’ From ‘A spoonful of sugar’ in the film Mary Poppins

So what do we do if we want to delve down through our adult priorities to find the playful child in ourselves? Well, it may sound like a hard job if you haven't seen that child for a while, but the happy truth is that all you have to do is invite that part of yourself to play. Like a dog you show the lead to, it will jump up and wag its tail. We know how to have fun, we only need permission.

Something I often do when helping people with their career dilemmas is ask their wiser self what resources the part of themselves who is struggling needs to move forward. They come up with things like knowledge, courage, determination, help, self belief, .... and I suggest that we design a bunch of balloons, each of which has one of these resources in it, and send it over to the one who is struggling. Before they send it over, though, I ask if they are ok with me adding two more to the bunch, ones that nobody ever comes up with: love and playfulness.

When you're having enough of a career crisis to seek help, your career may feel very serious indeed. Like life and death. The arrival of a balloon filled with love and another filled with playfulness is like waking up from a bad dream and realising that it isn't true; like the punchline of a great joke; like a sudden smile on the face of a very unhappy person. Nothing has changed, and yet everything has.

Try this:

Whatever you are going to do after reading this, imagine that a balloon full of playfulness has been sent to you by someone who loves you.

Repeat often!



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