Playfulness and Childlike Wonder

Playfulness and Childlike Wonder

As the father of a three-year old, I’m continually learning life lessons by simply observing the way my daughter interacts with the world. She notices things that I don’t, her imagination ignites in ways that I can’t anticipate, she dances to music with freedom and innocence that I seem to have lost, and her silliness often comes more quickly than mine.

I’ll occasionally hear people say (and I often think it myself), “Oh to be a kid again!” While we adults do mature, get bigger in size, change developmentally, take on more responsibility, and eventually cease to be classified as a child—there is no reason why we cannot maintain our sense of childlike wonder. We are still that same child—just in a different place on the continuum of life.

One of my former college professors stands out to me as someone who has maintained this sense of childlike wonder toward the world. In one class, I remember him standing and teaching from the other side of the room when the computer screensaver came on causing the powerpoint to disappear. Rather than walking back to the computer to wiggle the mouse, he simply picked up a chalkboard eraser and tossed it at the computer. It hit the mouse, turned off the screensaver, and he continued his talk with a smile.

Richard Lingard writes, “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” I discovered more about my professor’s character from the tossing of that eraser (and his other playful antics in class) than from previous conversations with him. His playfulness deepened and enriched our subsequent conversations as well as my appreciation for him.

Why? I think it is because playfulness is raw and unfiltered. You can’t really fake it or be pretentious about it. María Lugones says, “Playfulness is, in part, an openness to being a fool, which is a combination of not worrying about competence, not being self-important, not taking norms as sacred and finding ambiguity and double edges a source of wisdom and delight.” Most of our action in the world revolves around presenting and preserving a particular version of ourselves, but playfulness expresses a lack of self-importance which can be a subversive and counter-cultural act. (Don’t mistake overt sarcasm, snarky comments, or hurtful jabs as playfulness. Those are not playfulness but expressions of emotional regression.)

What kind of person playfully tosses something across the room or stands up on top of a desk in class to illustrate a point? (That also happened.) Someone who takes themselves lightly and continues to find delight in even the most mundane aspects of life.

G.K. Chesterton said that, “Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.” When I find myself in a witty and playful mood, I really do feel like I am soaring—like a leaf allowing itself be carried by random gusts of wind. When I lack playfulness, I feel heavy like a rock—unfazed by the gentle breezes of invitation that come passing by.

I’ve been reading through Edwin H. Friedman’s book A Failure of Nerve which has been extremely challenging on a number of fronts but there is one particular passage that has stuck with me. He writes, “. . . the relationship between anxiety and seriousness is so predictable that the absence of playfulness in any institution is almost always a clue to the degree of its emotional regression.” Have you noticed this connection between the loss of playfulness and social anxiety?

Many of the most admirable, professional, and wise people I have met are also people with great wit and humor. (A reminder that playfulness doesn’t mean doing poor quality work, acting rude or unprofessional, or showing disrespect.) When we can bring a sense of playfulness to our work and various institutions, we also reduce the anxiety and emotional regression (this regression is often expressed in bitterness, selfishness, rumor-spreading, gossip, etc.). Anytime you notice these forms of of emotional regression, you’ll almost surely find little (or no) sense of playfulness in that environment. 

Lastly, playfulness is a great expression of love. Réné Gaudette writes, “Playfulness, dear friends, is what manifests love. Love is not manifested through serious survivability, seriousness, stabilility. Love, the essence of love, manifests itself through playfulness.”

Sometimes I’ll want to have a moment with my daughter and tell her how much I love her. Between adults, this usually means looking each other in the eye and speaking from the heart. While this sometimes works with my daughter, she doesn’t really seem to reciprocate or take to heart what I am saying. What I find happens more often is that she is much more conscious of love when we are playing and being silly. In the course of playing a game or in the midst of silliness, she’ll sometimes blurt out, “I love you Dad.” Recently we were getting ready to read books together and she randomly said, “Thanks for taking care of me Dad.”

It is in our playfulness that we often best communicate our love.

What would it look like for your to bring a greater sense of playfulness and childlike wonder to your workplace, your family, your social environments?

“A little nonsense now and then, is cherished by the wisest men.”
― Roald Dahl


Photo credit: Lance Baker [Loc.] Huntsburg, OH

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