When did we stop playing? Most of us grew up as young adults taking on responsibilities from our earliest memories. Well … in a world packed with duties, obligations, and increasing expectations, it is time to upgrade our notions about play.

As humans, and as adults, we cannot keep extending our lifespan without considering how we engage life. Bringing play to our lives is a seductive and exciting way to presence our passion for life.

What Happened to Play?

How many of us have a hard time with a conversation about play as adults? This will require transforming two notions: Adulthood and Play.

The notion of adulthood pits us against two important currents of life, both represented in Greek mythology: The Dionysian or mischievous, ecstatic, and the Apollonian, or rational and sensible.

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Most Americans cannot fathom combining these two currents. Instead, we’ve chosen our Apollonian side. As Nietzche foretold, Western civilization’s repression of its Dionysian side comes at great cost. We’ve forgotten how to play: to experiment, to ask “why not?”, to push our edges, and to experiment with new things for no practical reason, other than to experience them.

By our mid-thirties, most accept society’s narrative, path, and destination. We get married, begin families, and/or plow into our careers. Responsibility is confused with seriousness, which claims to bring us wealth, and success.

Transforming what is “Adult”

What does it mean to be an adult? Typical of last century thinking – rooted in stable and orderly times – we tend to define adult with terms like mature, responsible, disciplined, and serious. Yikes! Point me to the exit door. Quickly!

The increased pace of change with increasing levels of complexity demands we revisit these old notions and related expectations. What if we expanded these terms to meet these times of uncertainty, and disruption?

Such a transformation requires transcending a feeling of trapped for a new sense of freedom.

We might begin by shifting seriousness from sober, austere, bound-and-determined, and businesslike to Intentional as voluntary, willing, on purpose, and thoughtful. Being intentional brings us back to purpose while being serious finds us living up to some external standard. Let’s continue with …

  • Shifting our notion of play from childish, as irresponsible, escape and fantasy to liveliness as in spirited, dynamic, quizzical, and light-hearted.
  • Shifting responsibility from burden, onus, restraint, and obligation to ownership as in agency, empowered and taking custody of our narrative.
  • And transforming discipline from old notions of rebellion or resistance related to stern or severe regimens or punishment to the wisdom, here, from Reverend Michael Beckwith:

“… a healthy view of discipline keeps us on track in areas of our life where we’ve determined to make a change. Discipline is a practice of self-love, self-respect, and surrender that results in freedom. The freedom of discipline means that you agree to free yourself from the limitation of playacting the roles assigned to you by society, family, religion, and education and accept the part that has been written for you since the beginning of time: being your Self.”

Adult “Play”

These shifts in terms point to less force and more freedom. Greater freedom is an important theme in disruptive times.

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The story of our time is one of growing anxiety fueled by the pace of change in technology, globalization, and knowledge, which have overtaken the ability of conventional learning to build social and community cohesion in the workplace and life. (View our blog on decreasing attention spans.)

The demands of complex living paradoxically demand greater freedom. Here’s the rub: the more complex the mind, the greater the need for the simplicity of play.

  • We need intentional diversions to free our mind, lighten our load, release static thinking, and expand the imagination.
  • We require an inquisitive approach to explore and experiment rather than getting attached to a single right answer.
  • We become more by doing less, by bringing fun and ease to our approach with a creative spirit that mimics childlike wonder: the excitement of completing a puzzle, risk in a new adventure, or thrill in winning a game.

Bringing fun, ease, and play to life is not a choice between handling oneself responsibly and engaging in play. It is the result of owning one’s life fully that frees us from ordinary concerns and allows us to approach life with ease and play. 

Let’s be clear, adult as play does not mean having fun while someone else is left to clean up our mess. That is not adult as play; that is a child to be parented. Spontaneity comes from the freedom that arises from owning, not escaping reality.

Practice Play

Discovering ways to bring play to life involves giving up some of our expectations and beliefs.

  1. Give up how things are supposed to be. Any time you expect things to be a certain way: Stop, pause, and consider that this is an assumption, interpretation, and belief from your past – from a time that simply no longer exists. Your intention, not your past, is the best predictor of what occurs at this moment. Be here, now, today!
  2. Give up having to know. Having to know all possible outcomes before acting, circumvents the possibility of experimenting and experiencing the unpredictable, where fun and play live. Paradoxically, the very excitement and energy that causes fun springs from our capacity to engage the unknown. Replace the need to know with bewilderment and curiosity. Experiment, disrupt old patterns, see what’s possible. Rediscover yourself!
  3. Mix and match things. Combine rituals and routines to disrupt old patterns. Add a glass of wine, hot tea or hot cider, or perhaps a little music or a scented candle to balancing your checkbook. Figure out what you enjoy, what inspires you, what stimulates you, and use it to reinvent current routines.
  4. Never Done Before. Consider a weekly play date of doing something you’ve never done before. Visit a sangha, temple or jazz lounge; engage line dancing, visit a museum, bake bread, take a new bike route, hunt for city art, bowl, etc. Do something you’ve never done before, and you’ll begin to see ordinary things differently.
  5. Lighten up! Notice any level of significance. Significance occurs when we make everything so. damn. meaningful. And … we lose ourselves in our thoughts about an event; rather than simply engaging the experience each event can offer. We become too significant when we can no longer laugh at ourselves. In that moment, pause, breathe, and lighten up.

Listen, regardless of what’s occurring around us, we can always choose how to interpret circumstances, and how to act. As we approach the holidays, choose to bring fun, ease and play to each aspect of your life. Your spouse, partner, friends and family will be forever grateful!


tony-zampella-headshotTony Zampella is the learning specialist at Zampella Group, which serves Learning & Development Professionals. As an instructor, researcher, and designer of learning programs and practices his work develops mindsets for creating leadership cultures.

His studies include the work of Martin Heidegger and ontological inquiry, Ken Wilber, and Integral theory, and Zen Buddhism.