Childlike versus Childish

“When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”  (C.S. Lewis)

Children play whenever they can – as soon as their most urgent needs are met, and whenever they are not prevented from it.  That ability to stay in the moment, to grasp opportunities for exploration, joy and challenge whenever possible, is probably what most people mean by the word “childlike”.

Adults often assume that we don’t need to play in the same way that children do.  Our brains are more fixed, our hormones more regulated.  Blah blah blah.  What if those things are true, but utterly beside the point?  What if we need to play – desperately?  What if we long for that sense of being powerfully in love with the world that play provides and celebrates?

Adults seek to redevelop their playful attitude via every method from meditation to motorbikes.  Why doesn’t it come more smoothly to us – why are we adults so play deprived?  Even those of us who ought to know better don’t necessarily find the time we need.  It’s like attending a feast and accepting only black coffee.

For children, those needs which outrank play are listed at the bottom of Maslow’s chart (food, water, shelter, warmth) and safety.  Studies of children in the most horrific circumstances show that children can be amazingly opportunistic – playing as soon as they can, even for a tiny moment.  Children continue to strive for play, against all odds.

And yet adults, who seem to have so much choice and control over their lives by comparison, seem hardly to play at all.  Play isn’t even listed on Maslow’s chart, even though the first “behavior leading to self-actualization” that he lists is “experiencing life like a child”.

I mean, honestly!

Is it simply that, as adults, we prevent ourselves from playing?  We ignore that little voice that has all the best ideas for what we could do differently or teasingly or controversially. We prefer to spend our time mulling over those uniquely adult fears of money, of disapproval or humiliation, of “being found out”.  We tell ourselves that there are so many “more important” things we ought to be doing, that we’re “no good” at art or music or dancing or singing and so we shouldn’t bother to try.

Worse than that, we tell ourselves that we are not truly safe.  It is not enough for us that our needs are met in the moment.  It is not enough if we expect to have food and water and warmth for days or months or years to come.  For many adults, fretting and striving and working all hours but feeling they’re getting nowhere, it is never ever enough – which means it is never time to relax, never time to play.

And so we gently cease to feel part of the living joyful world.  We stop celebrating our place in it, stop exploring new corners of it.  We grow staid in ourselves, and suspicious of spontaneity in others.  Exhausted, we stop feeling that the world loves us and we stop feeling in love with the world.  All because we stop playing.

This kind of thinking infects me too, even though I ought to know better, so I thought of times as an adult when I have truly played.  Alone in a summer garden, when I knew no one could see me running about with no clothes on through the flowers.  In a conference workshop, when being playworked by the marvelous Maggie Fearne and Pete King and making little figures out of mud and moss.  Whenever I sit down to write and draw I still, every time, give myself a little speech about how this is “my time”, and that I can’t get it wrong.

All of this makes my friend and colleague Suzanna Law’s current project all the more amazing to me – she’s playing and documenting it every single day of 2013.

Does anyone else want to take a play pledge too, even for one week?


5 thoughts on “Childlike versus Childish

  1. I love this post – the title is really striking to me. Play in the adult world seems rare – anything unplanned is rare in my day. I think I could try to play everyday for a week 🙂

    1. Thank you! I was talking more with Suzanna last night and she said that it seemed counterintuitive but she often plans her playtimes in. I think that’s okay – as funny as “scheduled spontaneity” sounds! It’s about making time and space for play to be a priority, which we do for/with children all the time.

      Let’s do it, a week of play!

      1. I was going to mention scheduling in playtime…its just the way things work for me these days! I’m about to head outside for a nature walk! But yes, lets promote a play week!

  2. Yes yes yes! I frequently talk about the importance of playing throughout life. Its not even about taking a pledge for a week for me. Its about being playful everyday in as many situations as you can – having a giggle with the lady in the supermarket, playing with the cat, playing peek a boo with the kid on the tube and the one I often cite – driving my car a little too fast round roundabouts late at night when no one is around. Leading your life with a smile on your face 🙂

    1. Yes – absolutely! I think that carving time out or pledges are good for people who are feeling rusty about playing, but the Big Idea is definitely one of living playfully, every day. Awesome!

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