Finding our play is something that we feel with our whole selves.
Defining play is like defining joy, or love or hope, and so many other personal things. I work with definitions from research to 5 year old’s, evidence and science to the wisdom of people who have lived long enough and deep enough to remind us of its importance.
So when we are defining play, we have to remember that one person’s play is another person’s anxiety attack.
Many play researchers have worked with the definition of play from a thousand different angles and structures. Fundamentally, play is intrinsic and self-directed.
It is built and felt from the inside of people, and although we can be affected by watching other people’s play, finding our play is something that we feel with our whole selves.
Plays is voluntary; we cannot be forced into it, and we are in charge of ending it.
We have many great examples of how much people would like us to be having fun doing something or fully engaged when we are not.
As parents for example, we often are called into play by our kids, and although having us be a part of the game of hide and seek is play for them. It is not playing for us; for many of us, including myself, we are guilty of spending unconscious time “pretending to play”, being in the moment but being somewhere else. When we are really in play with our kids, we are present, and together we are doing something playful for both of us, not just for one of us.
When we are not or cannot be “in play,” we are often left feeling heavy with the guilt of “good parents play!”
We can’t always be in play; to expect that of ourselves is not only overwhelming but impractical. But what we can do is that when it happens, or when we are more mindful of these moments, then we will take time to live in them and lean into them.
This is singing in the car for me, my kids and I can sing in the car, and we can be 100% in the play together.
The great thing about kids is that they know when you are in play, and they will go back to it a thousand times to feel it alongside you because when you are really in play, they feel an authentic connection.
Play is voluntary, and sometimes just watching play can give us happiness — we do not have to be in play to enjoy it.
You cannot be in play if you are not there by choice — like changing attitudes and behaviours — forced compliance will not change the way people feel or engage with something differently.
However, we can be moved to play by being invited into a space and learning that we can find play within it.
An Example From The Playground
Have you ever gone to a dinner party and someone says, “who wants to play charades?”!
You hate charades, you never know what to do, you often look silly, and you don’t like doing embarrassing things people will talk about and “insta text” to everyone out of context.
Someone has gone first, this is their play and they love it. They have a thousand ideas and start and laugh and there is confusion and competition.
You sit in the background, watch for a while, and at some point you realize that you know the answer. How can they not get it? How can they not see? The answer is obviously “umbrella,” and something happens …
Being around people in play is infectious. It cues a part of our brain that is driven to mimic and imitate. Play sends belonging cues and an invitation to be a part of something even when you are standing on the outside.
However, there is a difference between receiving the invitation to play versus being forced to play. If your wife pulls you to the front in that same game of charades and says “you go first”! You will not be in play, for sure. It will be like being put in front of a stage of people with a microphone in your hand when you had intended on being in the audience.
After that experience, you will not go back to anything that looks like charades again because charades feels like sweaty palms and fear and embarrassment, which is very different from the feeling of involving yourself when you are ready at a level you are prepared for.
As we build strategies for organizational culture, the parallel is this; we often put people in front of the room with a microphone in their hand versus inviting them to watch from the sidelines until the invitation feels inviting.
Not everything has to be an invitation in business, or education or sport. Still, we have proven time and time again that shaming people into action or behaviours you EXPECT rarely results in optimal performance.
Imagine if, in your workplace, you felt invited vs convinced or obligated to look at things differently or told “here is the solution”! vs. invited to build solutions.
What if I can learn or connect to what makes you feel free, confident, available to new perspectives and safe to explore ideas?
You may think this takes more time and could be inefficient, but how much time are we spending right now on initiatives that we have to repeat over and over again because they do not move people… they only change the font.
What if we signalled more often “it’s ok to play now”, to fall down, change directions, do something unheard of, differently.
How long would it take if people felt valued and valuable for their input or to do things in a way that made them feel valued and heard?