A Playful Attitude towards Life,
the Universe and Everything

Kids play. It is such a natural thing that we don’t even think about it. But perhaps we should. Because, hey: Why, exactly, do kids play? And what, if anything, can we (adults) learn from that? As it turns out: a lot!

Do Kids Need to Be Taught How to Play? Nope.

Playing isn’t something children need to be taught, train for, or learn. Rather, it’s something they do all by themselves.

We can teach our kids new games, obviously, but we really don’t need to. Kids are perfectly capable of playing, as well as inventing new games, all by themselves.

Simply put, playing is built into us humans.

How, Exactly, Do Kids Play?

When kids play, they’re having fun. They’re investigating the world, doing experiments, testing themselves and each other, and they’re learning a lot.

Kids aren’t afraid to try out new things, that’s actually one of the things that make playing fun. They’re also not afraid of failing or making “mistakes” (whatever mistakes is supposed to mean). Their natural approach is one of flexible persistency and experimentation. If whatever they just tried didn’t work out the way they wanted it to, they don’t stop or give up, they simply try something else. And they continue doing that until they’re satisfied.

Rules? They are made to be changed. Which rules are the best? The ones that make playing fun and instructive.

Children playing aren’t stressed out, they are relaxed and enjoying themselves. Nor are playing children careless about or indifferent to their play, they are actually quite absorbed in playing, and even though they are well aware that what they’re doing is ‘not for real, it’s just play, just fun and games’ they happily invest their time, energy and attention in it. Because children know full well that if playing it is to be fun (and useful), then they must take playing seriously, but not too seriously.

Children are also well aware that if they start taking their playing around too seriously, it stops being fun and becomes ‘for real’, which is neither fun nor helpful, but rather tiresome, stressful and unpleasant.

Play: “Taking Things Seriously, but Not Too Seriously”

Kids learn fast because they play. Victorian painting. 3 girls on a swing. In other words:

Children take playing seriously, but not too seriously.

They do this naturally, without being told or taught. Why? The answer is very simple:

Because it is effective.

Nature almost always picks the simplest, fastest, most efficient way. Just like water running down an uneven hill.

Nobody in the whole wide world has more to learn than kids, so kids use the most effective way there is to learn, which is: Play.

And why not admit it? Not just play, but EVERYTHING is better if you don’t take it too seriously and have a lot of fun with it while you’re doing it.

Even sex. Especially sex.

But everything else, too.

The Point: Playing Is Tons of Fun – and It Works!

Young girl in a meadow playfully watching a butterfly. Victorian painting. Theories about play do exist. In fact, they abound. Some pretty smart people (eg. the three gentlemen Friedrich, a.k.a. Schiller, Fröbel and Nietzsche, Lev Vygotsky, Sigmund Freud, Maria Montessori, Rudolf Steiner, Karl Groos, John Dewey, Erik Erikson, Johan Huizinga, Gregory Bateson, Jean Piaget, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Jerome Bruner, Stephen Nachmanovitch, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Michael Apter, Moritz Lazarus, G. Stanley Hall, Mildred Parten, Kenneth H. Rubin and Brian Sutton-Smith) have been producing deep thoughts on the subject, but we’re not going to go into that here.

Suffice it to say that there can be almost no doubt about the following:

Children play. Children have very little experience, know-how or knowledge, but they are fearlessly open to what’s new, they put in lots of effort, in a sustained in a flexible manner (i.e. they try again and again in new ways until they’re satisfied with the result), and the net effect is that they quickly learn a lot, in a lot of different areas. While doing all of this, they’re enjoying themselves and having tons of fun.

So perhaps the reason why children play without being taught to do so, is because:

Play is an extremely efficient way for humans to learn, solve problems and test themselves, others and life. Playing is both safe, exciting and fun at the same time. It is also highly motivating.

Imagine …

Just imagine if we had the guts to play around at work. Or when dealing with our family (oh!). Or in our relationship to our partner. Or in our sex life.

Some people already do. Some people play their way through their work day. They are usually both happy, creative and effective. Others already have a highly playful sex life … and you can bet it’s a pretty great one.

Not Playful, and very serious = problems and worries

Women (and dog) playfully skating on a frozen lake. Victorian painting. We might also try turning it around and checking the areas of life where we’re experiencing problems, worries and sorrows. Once we have identified a problem area (e.g. family, money / finances, personal development, emotions, beliefs or our self-image), then we can check if this is an area of life we take the not only seriously but TOO seriously, and whether or not we address it with a playful attitude.

In somewhere between 9 out of 10 cases and 10 out of 10 cases, you can bet we’re taking this area of life too seriously, and we are certainly not addressing it with a playful attitude.

This really ought to make us think …

Can a Playful Attitude and Taking Things Seriously, but Not Too Seriously Solve Anything for Us?

Would we be able to fix our problem areas in life, if we addressed them in a playful and serious, but not too serious way?

Of course. Everything can be fixed. If nothing else, then we can fix our attitude towards the problem, which is basically the same thing, approached in a different way:

When we no longer perceive a problem as a problem, is it still a problem?

It isn’t, is it? It’s more like a challenge. The problem may well be quite real, but when we no longer see it as problematic, we are already halfway on the way to solving it, and it is very nearly a given that we’re going to solve it, one way or the other.

So, What Can We Learn from All of This?

Actually, there’s something for us (adults) to learn in virtually all areas of life from the way children play and learn.

Is this a frivolous and irresponsible thought? Aren’t adults supposed to be deadly serious and highly responsible and, well, boring?

Well, no. We’re supposed to be human. To be human is to play and have fun and learn and grow all the while. Most people, as they grow up, seem to come very close to forgetting that they have this capability. (Using a gross generalization we might say that this seems even more true of adult women than of adult men, noting all the while that the ambitious and ruthless men who REALLY suck at being playful, are even more terrible at it than almost all women. What painful state of being!)

Seriously, though, folks: There’s A LOT to be said for having a playful attitude in ALL aspects of life. Kids are serious when they play, they just don’t take it TOO seriously, and neither should we. Let’s see what we can learn from the childishly playful approach to life.

Being …

Fearless
(= not being afraid of doing something “wrong” or making “mistakes”)
Inexperienced (on purpose)
(= recognizing that, regardless of our existing experience and know-how, we do not have –
or can consciously choose to not have – experience or know-how in this exact situation …
because that is actually an advantage)
Ignorant (on purpose)
(= same as with being inexperienced above, recognizing or consciously choosing not to
know much about this exact situation, and seeing this as an advantage)
Open to what’s new
Inquisitive
Willing to experiment
Persistent in a flexible manner
(= trying again and again in new ways, until we’re satisfied)
Playful
Serious, but not too serious
Joyful, having a positive attitude and having fun

… is, simply put, not only pleasurable but super-efficient. Not just for scientists and creative people, and not just in our work, but for all people in all areas of life – our work life, our family life, our married life, our sex life, our daily life, yes, even our emotional life, “thought life” and “belief life” (regarding beliefs of all kinds).

In virtually all areas of life we can benefit from a playful and serious but not too serious attitude towards everything.

Winter scene: Tobogganing and having fun on a snowy hill. Victorian painting.

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