Lean into Playfulness. It’s the Mature Thing to Do

At first I said “no” when my eldest child asked me, at a family gathering, if he could play a joke on the unsuspecting crowd.

He wanted to make and offer round some cordial — spiked with salt. Mine had attracted complaints because it was too weak. This would attract a taker because it would be strong.

I laughed and shook my head, then thought again. He’d asked when he could have just acted, and his idea was pretty tame. What would be the harm? My “no” became a “yes.”

When his cousins were too suspicious to accept his kind offering, my son turned to the adults. An uncle thanked him for the drink, took a sip, then frowned, confused. He took another sip. My son began to laugh then ran outside.

“Salt!” I said. “A joke!” I said. Then, from the child inside of me there came two unexpected words: “Get him!” 

The parent in me didn’t disagree, “Go on! Tip it on his head. Don’t kids need to learn about consequences? About cause — and effect.”

His uncle needed no further convincing. Out he went and out the cordial went, flowing from the cup onto his nephew’s unsuspecting head, dripping down his unsuspecting face.

My son’s response? Shocked delight. Whoever said that learning — whoever said that teaching — can’t be fun?

Of course, the story could have ended differently. The cause and effect “lesson” could have ended in anger, or tears, or both — but the chance I took was a calculated one. I knew the players: their sensitivities, their strengths. What my son didn’t know til later was that I — his “grown-up” mum — was one of the players as well. Two life lessons for the price of one.

Weeks later, a friend and her partner make an offer on a unit. When it’s accepted they’re thrilled — and terrified. Though she’s fast approaching 40, she tells me she’s still not 100 percent sure she’s an “actual adult.”

“Am I allowed a mortgage? And a baby?” she asks. 

“Aren’t all adults just kids in disguise?” I offer.

We could have decided we had “imposter syndrome” — why else would two fully grown women doubt their own maturity? Instead, we decided we adults are indeed children in disguise. This isn’t to say we aren’t also adults; it’s that the notion of an “adult” we had as children, more of an “other” than an “us,” was ill-conceived.

We also agreed that adults are sometimes in denial about this; we pretend we’re more grown up, and less childlike, than we are. We don a disguise, play a part — to impress, convince, and persuade both others and ourselves — to court “success.” We suppress our insecurities. And our quirks.

Performance and Play

Writer Sheila Heti, after meeting an editor for the first time, wonders what we need to know about a person in order to like them. “Before she wrapped her leftover buttered toast inside a paper napkin, I didn’t know whether I liked her or not,” Heti writes of the woman she met in a cafe. She continues: 

Then, when she wrapped up her toast in the napkin, I suddenly loved her. Before she wrapped up her toast, she had been making an effort to show herself to be a sophisticated and an impressive young editor from a respected magazine. Then, when she did that, the performance dropped; not only was she underpaid, the gesture said, but she really liked toast. She liked toast even more than she liked being admired.


The less a person performs, the less they try to filter themselves and their quirks, to hide their vulnerabilities, the easier it is to get to know them.

There is a world of difference between performing a role out of obligation, insecurity, or necessity, and being playful. Play is more experimental, less self-conscious; more curious, less serious. 

Many experts agree and might share Heti’s sentiment. Psychiatrist Stuart Brown, who founded the National Institute for Play in the U.S., did so because 50 years of clinical practice, research, and scholarship left him convinced that humans in general — not children in particular — are “built to play and built by play.”

Even Plato viewed play as the best way for adults to learn, historian Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt says in a paper on leisure and play. Meanwhile, philosopher John Wall has claimed the “fundamental obligation” of human beings is “to play amidst differences of experience in order to create more broadly expansive human relations.”

And now, the corporate world is abuzz with talk of bringing back play. In their 2023 book Playfulness in Coaching, LEGO Serious Play facilitator Stephanie Wheeler and corporate coach Teresa Leyman say it “feels as if we (collectively) are at the beginning of a cultural shift” in how we approach well-being, a shift that could be supported by “the qualities required and fostered by playfulness.”

Play is “rooted in authenticity,” the authors write. It encompasses “a cognitive attitude towards exploration,” supports shifts in perspective, and can help people access a state of learning, connecting and co-creating.

There could be far-reaching implications if, as they suggest, “an increasing acceptance in coaching and leadership that we need space for uncertainty, ambiguity, and the whole person” might lead more organizations to see the value of supplementing “our rational and logical thought with playfulness.”

What might this look like? Not just play at work, but play as work? I’m reminded of a quote from author Natalie Goldberg who, in Writing Down the Bones, talks about how one small prop can “tip your mind into another place:”

When I sit down to write, often I have a cigarette hanging out of my mouth. If I’m in a cafe that has a “No Smoking” sign, then my cigarette is unlit. I don’t actually smoke anyway, so it doesn’t matter. The cigarette is a prop to help me dream into another world.


The Risk and the Reward

Being less guarded, less risk-averse, and taking ourselves less seriously might make us come across as less impressive to some — and downright weird to others — but it can stimulate more creative and innovative thinking and problem-solving. It can enrich our relationships, too. It allows people to “get” us more easily, and relate to us more honestly. They might not find us as sophisticated as they would if we suppressed our quirks, but I’m willing to bet they’ll find us more interesting.

For those of us who have suppressed quirks, hidden vulnerabilities, and ignored playful urges for so long, it’s become second-nature to do so. Letting down our guard from time to time might be more difficult than leaving it up permanently. But becoming one kind of person — an editor, a homeowner, a parent — doesn’t mean we have to stop being another.

As for age, we’re never really just one number, and we’re never really “all grown up.” Why pretend otherwise? My middle-aged mind still contains, and is shaped by, the memories and experiences of my younger self. I still have within me an urge, from time to time, to play. And as I continue to grow up, I intend to foster it. It’s the mature thing to do.

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