Readings on Playfulness

“It is a happy talent to know how to play.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

“There is a mystic in every one of us, yearning to play again in the universe.” Matthew Fox

To play is to listen to the imperative inner force that wants to take form and be acted out without reason. It is the joyful, spontaneous expression of one’s self. The inner force materializes the feeling and perception without planning or effort. That is what play is.
Michelle Cassou and Stewart Cubley

When we play, we sense no limitations. In fact, when we are playing, we are usually unaware of ourselves. Self-observation goes out the window. We forget all those past lessons of life, forget our potential foolishness, forget ourselves. We immerse ourselves in the act of play. And we become free.
Lenore Terr

Play exists for its own sake. Play is for the moment; it is not hurried, even when the pace is fast and timing seems important. When we play, we also celebrate holy uselessness. Like the calf frolicking in the meadow, we need no pretense or excuses. Work is productive; play, in its disinterestedness and self-forgetting, can be fruitful.
Margaret Guenther

In rare moments of deep play, we can lay aside our sense of self, shed time’s continuum, ignore pain, and sit quietly in the absolute present, watching the world’s ordinary miracles. No mind or heart hobbles. No analyzing or explaining. No questing for logic. No promises. No goals. No relationships. No worry. One is completely open to whatever drama may unfold.
Diane Ackerman in Deep Play

“In a world continuously presenting unique challenges and ambiguity, play prepares (animals) for an evolving planet.” Bob Fagen

Play seems intrinsic and begins with simple rhythmic movements that may even occur in the womb. The most common patterns described as play in almost all mammals and birds comprise variations on upward springing, turning around, and tumbling over and over. The patterns may involve pirouetting, turning and twirling, twisting around, leaping and swinging in trees, or turning somersaults. These play movements may be repeated many times. It is possible that the repetition of newly learned phrases by young’songbirds, such as blackbirds and nightingales, may represent a type of vocal play.
During play, the actor may change actions very quickly: one moment running as though fleeing, and the next chasing or pouncing as though attacking. These shifts occur effortlessly. In many species the young, particularly young primates and young carnivores, play with objects; they pounce on feathers, pieces of dried skin, dried dung, and so forth. During bouts of social play, youngsters tumble and wrestle together, chase and flee from and bite one another. Sometimes play partners take it in turns to be the “aggressor” or the “victim,” but in some cases the larger or more assertive individual consistently assumes the dominant role.
Many actions seen during play occur in similar form in adult communication sequences in a variety of contexts, but it is usually very obvious when the behavior is performed playfully. Moreover, there are special signals that clearly indicate playful intentions, such as the “play walk” in chimpanzees. And there are many ways in which an animal can signal its desire to initiate play, as any dog owner knows. When a play session involves partners of different ages, the older typically adjusts his or her behavior so as not to hurt the younger playmate. Sometimes squabbles break out during play, typically when one of the playmates hurts the other. Usually this seems unintentional and the rough individual quickly tries to reassure the others, and then play continues. When a real fight is triggered, bystanders, particularly mothers or other family members, may become involved, joining in to support one or another of the youngsters. Or a dominant male may charge over to stop the fight, thus restoring social harmony.
Another example is taken from my own observations of spotted hyenas in Tanzania. One evening as I was watching two youngsters at a den—a yearling male, Baggage, and his infant sister, Brindle—the small cub found a large smooth stone. She tried to pick it up, but the stone was large, her mouth small. She persevered and seemed about to succeed when Baggage, who had been watching, gave her ear a sudden pull, and she lost her grip. Again she tried to pick up that special stone, and again, just as it seemed she would succeed, Baggage pounced on her so that she lost her grip. This happened three times more. Then suddenly Brindle darted behind Baggage and pulled his tail. Quickly Baggage picked up the coveted stone and ran off with it, Brindle in hot pursuit. During phase two of this teasing game, Baggage repeatedly slowed down so that Brindle caught up, but as soon as she jumped up to try to grab the stone from his mouth, he ran on again. Finally she knocked it from her brother’s mouth, at which point phase one began again. Eventually, ten minutes or more after the start of play, Brindle suddenly moved away, as though no longer interested. She bit at some twigs, broke one off and began tossing it in the air, then pouncing on it. Baggage, who was watching with the stone in his mouth, could not resist this new game. He dropped the stone and ambled over to try to grab the twig. For a few seconds they had a tug of war, and then, suddenly, Brindle let go of the twig, rushed back to the stone and again tried to pick it up. But this time, when Baggage bounded over, Brindle turned to face him and sat firmly on the stone! The game had ended!
Jane Goodall, Chimpanzees and Others at Play

Be patient also with life itself. those who love life are tolerant of its ups and downs, its reversals and leaps forward. Those who love life enjoy playing it by ear, engaging life without a printed score, simply flowing with its melody. By keeping our agendas flexible and minimizing our demands, life can be a melodic song. Whenever circumstances interrupt the normal rhythm of life, those who cultivate patience and inner freedom are able to improvise with a life situation like jazz musicians, making up music as they go along. The emphasis in playing it by ear is on playfulness. Those who use that gift of the Holy Spirit make their way gracefully through life.
Edward Hays in The Great Escape Manual

What is serious to men is often very trivial in the sight of God. What in God might appear to us as “play” is perhaps what He Himself takes most seriously. At any rate the Lord plays and diverts Himself in the garden of His creation, and if we could let go of our own obsession with what we think is the meaning of it all, we might be able to hear His call and follow Him in His mysterious, cosmic dance.
Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation

“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.” John Muir

“Play is a signal that nature’s wisdom is being enacted.” Jane Goodall

Longer Texts

Dr. Stuart Brown, from the National Institute of Play speaks about play and spirit in this audio session from On Being.  The transcript is available further down the page.

This essay from the Abundant Mama reminds parents – and all adults – to take some time for play.

From the Help Guide, an exploration of the emotional benefits of play.

This article from the Boston Globe examines the value of playfulness in adults.

A reflection on The Wisdom of Play by the Rev. Anthony Makar in the UU World magazine.


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