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Kiddulting: Exploring the Spirit of Play for Adults

Cheaper than therapy, tastier than that second cocktail

By Chelsea DelaneyPublished 3 years ago 12 min read
Kiddulting: Exploring the Spirit of Play for Adults
Photo by Zachary Kadolph on Unsplash

As someone who works with children, I see some variant of this conversation on a regular basis:

Kid: (holding up a stuffed bear, speaking in the bear's voice) Well hullo there Mommy, how was your day today? I had some honey from a big, big tree.

Mom: (speaking directly to the kid) Awww...Mr. Bear is talking to me, how cute!

For most parents, that interaction would seem totally normal. However, my first thought is, "Wow, so it's like that? You're just going to totally ignore Mr. Bear, talk over him to your kid like he doesn't exist? I'd hate to be a teddy bear in your house." While it in no way constitutes bad parenting, it illustrates the difference between playing next to someone and playing with them.

And simply put, some adults don't know how to play with someone anymore, because they don't know how to play.

Don't get me wrong, we know how to go on vacations, plan game nights, movie nights, and all other manner of entertainments that meet the definition of fun. I'm not suggesting that there is anything wrong with any of these. What I am suggesting is that you can embark upon a fun activity, without a playful spirit. You can view playfulness as an accessory, instead of a character trait or mode of healing. This is a problem, especially now during the pandemic, when so many of our go-to fun things are off limits.

So how do we get so far from the essential resource of play, when for kids it's as easy as talking bears?

Play Thieves

Sounds scary, right? Well, it is and it isn't. These insidious little robbers are housed under their more commonly known term: growing up. But let's break down this idea of 'growing up.' Must we absolutely allow these things in our lives to be productive adults in society?

Shame: At some point as children, we all started getting a similar memo: "You're too old for..." and fill in the blank. While our survival still depended on adults to feed and house us, we heard that we were disappointing expectations, standing outside the norm in a way that was inconvenient to someone else. We knew that play was a necessity, but our grownups started telling us it was a luxury that we were selfish or lazy to want. No wonder so many of us gave it up.

Can you bring that moment or moments to mind? How terrifying and confusing it was? If you can imagine it, stop and mentally hug that younger version of yourself...go on, I'll wait.

Gave him/her/them a good squeeze? Yay. So here's the amazing news, and I say this without a drop of condescension, as someone who has worked hard to come back to my own playful spirit: your survival is not dependent on them anymore. It is dependent on you. Yes, yes, there are forces that act on and shape the process of securing that survival, but you are the only one who gets to create the game plan. You can lay down the agenda that was placed on you. While you're at it, go ahead and lay down the weight of divining and fulfilling others expectations. It's not easy, but it's key in starting to trust that you can and will survive on your own terms. And once that happens? You start thinking about what it might be like to thrive.

Being Tolerated Instead of Met

Maybe you weren't shamed for being playful. A lot of us were simply tolerated--a slight sigh, an eye roll, "she's just being a kid." For parents, this can be a marked improvement from the shaming that they received for being playful as kids. I genuinely celebrate you for this. Breaking cycles is hard work, especially after working all day and coming home to a house full of immediate needs that clamor for your attention.

But what we must try to understand is that for kids, sometimes this is worse. Shaming, while awful, is often fairly direct. You can create a story about how you've let down the adults, and try to "fix" your behavior that probably didn't really need fixing. However, when we are tolerated, we are placed on an indefinite time out with no explanation as to the distance between ourselves and the adults in our lives. Both modes of responding to kids are equally effective in burying playfulness by the time they come to adulthood. Tolerated kids just tend to come to that adulthood more confused about how to create connection with friends and loved ones around them.

Lack of Novelty

Adult life becomes more and more structured every year. While the safety in this can be comforting, it also slowly suffocates our ability to connect to our natural playfulness. Think about it--for the first five to eight years of a child's life, a large portion of everyday is something new, never seen/heard/felt/done before. This makes it much easier for them to keep their definitions fluid, their eyes peeled, and their trust in the unknown high. It's easy to be wowed when everything is new, and to try on multiple roles in response to the world around us. By contrast, I got to work yesterday and for a short second could not remember any part of the drive there.

Where we go wrong is in thinking that we have to burn our current life to the ground in order to create that novelty. I think that can be a valid move a handful of times in each life, but it's not a sustainable move. Start with things you can do, things that don't take much or any time at all. Take a different route on your walk, buy a different kind of milk at the grocery store, read your daily news from a different website. Give yourself a moment to be constructively unbalanced, and notice what that's like. What happens right before you introduce some novelty? What happens right after? I promise you, you can still be surprised by yourself and the life you're living.

What Kids Know That We Can Remember

So how do we get back to this gorgeous state of embodied playfulness? Surely we don't want to just figure out who or what stole play from us and go off to cry in the corner. Take a look at these things that children know. Do you still know any of them? If not, is there any small part that wakes up at hearing these ways of being, leans towards them with some longing?

Everything is Alive

Kids talk to inanimate objects all the time. An eleven year old asked me just the other day, "Do you think this pencil is sad that it doesn't have an eraser?" He then proceeded to stare at it for a long second in contemplation. But when is the last time most of us have recognized the stories of the objects all around us, the immense, textural nature of our daily world? And by this, I don't just mean cursing the printer or the car or the phone for not working. I mean going out on an imagination limb to make contact with what surrounds us. And yes, it feels dorky at first, but it's so fun! Most days, when I first leave my apartment, I stop and say, "Good morning porch!" This small act of play leaves me feeling as if something interesting might happen today, and I miss it when I forget.

Starting off by talking to animals or nature is often a helpful bridge into this play practice, but it can still sometimes be challenging for adults. There are a couple of reasons for this. First off, we move faster than kids because we have more to do. This flattens and compresses the stories of the objects (and people) around us. However, this does not mean that it is impossible to slow down at one or several points during the day. The pandemic has shown a lot of us the beauty of slowing down. Just as we've been trained to make time to do more things, we can train ourselves to make time to slow down. When we do this, life becomes more of a being than a doing experiment, and all kinds of things are instantly more possible--like pencils with a complicated backstory and feelings about their lack of eraser.

The other reason this is challenging for adults is that our history has taught us that some things and people are friends, and some are not. Thus, if your whole world is suddenly alive, it's filled with new friends, but also new foes. Until they learn otherwise, and unfortunately that's younger for some than for others, the world is all friends for a kid. Imagine if we tried this attitude on, even for a second, even if we were in fake it till you make it mode. You get up in the morning, your covers love you so much they don't want you to leave. Your slippers hug your feet, they're glad you're up. The pictures and knick knacks on your wall greet you. Your plates and silverware chat you up about life as you make breakfast. It's not as much of a Disney movie as it may sound, but more play as a meditative practice.

Rule Breaking and Unfiltered Expression

Kids break rules because they haven't learned them all yet. We obey the rules because we know the consequences. Simple enough--this makes them wrong, but innocent of wrongdoing. It makes us right because we know better. The wrench in this is the rules that make no sense--often those of the unwritten variety. Why can't we face the wall instead of the door in an elevator full of people? Why can't we sing out loud walking down the street? Why is it suspect in some circles for men to weep or women to not wear a bra?

I'm not trying to get anyone carted away to jail, but if you've never broken, or at least questioned a pointless rule, chances are you struggle with play. Simply put, unflinchingly set definitions leave no room for fluidity, surprise, and wonder--all components of a healthy sense of play.

One of my favorite places kids break rules that adults can learn from? The ultimate satisfaction of the unfiltered expression. How many times a day do you put away your WTF face? What about those moments where a thing that's small to others seems exceptionally amazing or catastrophic to you? We spend a lot of time re-arranging our face and our response to meet the rule of whatever context we're in.

But as we all know, kids are not like that, and I'm convinced that part of our annoyance with this fact is simply that we are jealous of them. If they're sad, they'll be real sad, throw yourself on the ground in the middle of the grocery store sad. Life will be an existential French movie and they will be doomed to bear the bleakness of the world FOREVER. I once had a three year old who cried for 15-20 minutes every time I sneezed because the sound of it scared her, being scared made her angry, and being angry made her sad (her explanation, not mine). If they're happy, they have no qualms about creating yelps of a pitch that only dogs can hear. In short, they are realness. But as adults, we get labeled as naive, melodramatic, undignified, unprofessional, or worse if we don't filter our responses.

Right now we have a unique opportunity to relax our faces a little, as they are covered with masks all day. So go ahead and try it. Let a little more of your real feeling out to your face and see what it's like. I amuse myself enormously by sticking my tongue out at people under my mask who will never know I've stuck my tongue out at them. It is liberating and hilarious and delightful.

Everything is Connected

Have you ever watched kids at a playground go around and pick up every toy? Can you also see their parents anuses contract, just hoping they won't have to get into it with another parent? Kids can do this because in their mind, everything is connected--the world is one big whole. Thus, the divisions between yours and mine, you and me, appropriate and inappropriate, public and private, are quite hazy for the first few years.

Adults tend to over correct once we learn the divisions. Some of us learn quite young to compartmentalize, create boundaries that border on prison walls, and differentiate to the point of vigilance. Play has to move in order to live, but more importantly, playful lives have to have choices. The more rigidly we separate things, the fewer choices we have, and our play becomes a poor imitation of the effortless brilliance we held as children.

We will never be able to live the sense of connectedness we had as kids, but we can choose to pick it up where we need it as play loving adults. This leads to three of my favorite types of play. The first is simple, I call it 'This is Mine' play. Sometimes, when I'm tired or in a bad mood, I'll walk around my house, my work, the park, and after everything I see I'll say, "This is mine." This tree? It's mine. This toothbrush? Mine? These photocopies? They are mine!!! See if you can do it for five minutes without laughing. Your inner four year old will love it.

The second doesn't have a name, but it mirrors the synesthesia-like nature of children. All that means is that I put all my senses in a blender and see what happens. It leads to questions like, "What does that tree taste like? What does my dinner sound like? What color is it when my significant other says 'I love you?'" It's why kids color trees orange and purple and name their pets things like Big Shoe. It's why Dr. Seuss exists, along with all other creators of made up words. Well, that's weird. YES, THAT'S THE POINT! The more we see overlap and interconnection, the more choices we have. And I'll tell you, for every moment I feel a little silly as an adult that plays, I spend five more moments feeling like I'm slowly becoming a genius.

Finally, connection brings us back to a tried and true game from drama class--'yes, and....' For any of you who've never played, it's an improv game. Someone in the circle starts with a suggestion for a story or scene, and then the next person must step in, agree with the previous suggestion, and add another suggestion. It's how I once ended up spending three hours with a kid I'd just met, playing 'Reality TV Fashion Show' with a piece of string we found on the floor. She got in a good fifteen 'yes, ands' for every one I could think of. It's also why my bathtub had bouncy balls floating in it last night. "I'm going to take a bath tonight because I'm 42 and my right hip hurts. Yes, and you're going to empty all your bouncy balls into the tub to see what happens."

Connected things grow, disconnected things struggle to obtain necessary resources. End of story.

Drop and Shift

Last but not least, kids know that they don't have to finish something. This needs no explaining to those of you who have watched your kids clean half a room, or wander around half dressed in the morning. As soon as their attention is grabbed by something else, they drop what they're doing and go there. This may mean a whole new game, or a whole new layer to the current game, but having to finish something is not on their radar until we put it there.

When is the last time you tried this? Doing just half the dishes or the laundry? I can feel the horror of a thousand type A personalities supernova as I write this, but it is a beautiful way to become more playful. If you're bored with one thing, it is often because something else has your attention. So what is it? What is calling you? Adults who play on the regular start to get really good at hearing themselves whisper before they have to shout. As you allow yourself to wander a little, you start finding little unexpected treasures in the course of your day. Some tasks have to go from start to finish, but this is just not true for all of them.

Lead By Example

I have written the end of this article as a Mad Lib. To complete it you will need: noun, adjective, verb, adjective, verb, verb ending in -ing, verb, noun, verb ending in -s, verb (hint: or you could put whatever part of speech in that you want).

This _______ has been __________, and adults need to __________ as much as they can. Though it may be __________ ______________ at first, reclaiming and ________________ the spirit of _______________ is not a choice you'll regret. You may not remember your __________ self, but he/she ___________ you, and is waiting to _________ you home.


About the Creator

Chelsea Delaney

Life is weird, write about it, paint about it, dance about it, and sing about it too. Use every language in your arsenal to sculpt the world you want to live in. Writer, educator, artist, and creative midwife--this is what I do.

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