Play: It’s Not Just for Children

As children, our imaginations run freely. Our cognitive development depends on our ability to create ideas and synthesize all of the new ideas we are learning. It is no sillier for us to imagine a house made of lollipops than it is to learn our ABCs. For many of us, our favorite TV friends were furry monsters on Sesame Street. We liked to take our dolls or Legos and create things; everything with our mind was an open door.

And then what happened?

We grow up and enter a very left-brained world that values order, logic, and rationality. Careers that involve organizing data are very lucrative. Even the arts acquire an ethos of predictability: if that movie doesn’t make X number of dollars over its opening weekend, its leading actor or actress can expect a dip in his or her career. And why even take a risk on making an odd/unusual/original movie, when a predictable formula is a crowd-pleaser, guaranteed to make millions of dollars back? And if you live in a particular geographical area, like the Midwest, it’s best to conform, to look/dress/act like everybody else, with boringly banal tastes. And let’s not forget the Internet – it has homogenized everything down to the font.

But what if you want to swim upstream, to be an artist in this particular world? If you want to be a performing artist, such as an actor or an opera singer? Be a part of these professions where creativity and play are highly valued – no, rather, necessary?

It involves a process of letting go. Of letting go of the rational mind, and diving into the irrational. Of diving into a sense of the imagination, the fantasy, and the spontaneous. Of trusting one’s intuition and deep impulses – we all have them, but we have been educated out of them. It involves taking risks, sometimes not doing what everyone else is doing, and enjoying the process, doing what’s right for yourself. But sometimes it’s not doing what’s right for yourself, but for the character: a mild-mannered man might play the role of a sociopath, or a country girl might adopt a perfect Brooklyn accent.

Highly accomplished people in many fields talk of this as a state of flow (the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is all about this.) Great discoveries in the sciences have been made when scientists were enjoying experimenting. Athletes are literally in a state of play when they are in their games. It is especially evident in music – simply listen to Led Zeppelin’s “The Ocean” and the playfulness of the band is so evident in the song.

We have to remember periodically to return to a state of play, do things that encourage this. We don’t have to know the result, how things will turn out. We just have to have fun.


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