Learning From The Experts

The playful wisdom of children

One of the articles in Play & Humor (IC#13)
Originally published in Spring 1986 on page 17
Copyright (c)1986, 1997 by Context Institute

Thomas Crum is the co-founder (with John Denver) of the Windstar Foundation in Colorado, a martial artist (Aikido), and an educator in conflict resolution and team-building. He can be reached through Aiki Works, Box 7845, Aspen, CO 81612, or 303/925-7099. His book,
Beyond Success, will be published in the fall.

I USED TO BE AN EXPERT ON PLAY – as a child. Somehow, in my mature adult role, I’ve started to suppress my playful instincts for fear they might discredit my maturity. It can be very disconcerting to others if I choose to take myself more lightly. If I sufficiently released the humor of life from its imprisonment within my ego, I’d have to let go of some of that anger, fear, and guilt that I’ve worked so hard to achieve!

Why is play so valuable and why do we admire a child’s ability to constantly create play? Why do we love it so when the child in us emerges? It is the power, the creativity, the joy and the freedom that play brings, that we cherish so much. Coming from a context of play supports us in having the courage to be fully committed, teaches us to accept responsibility without acquiring unnecessary stress and provides us with greater flexibility to respond appropriately to changing situations.

When we are in touch with the playful part of ourselves, there is a quality of fulfillment, peacefulness and centeredness that emerges. Play provides us with a more expansive perspective. Many people have experienced moments when they felt good about themselves and recognized their connectedness to something bigger and more powerful than their immediate surroundings or the job at hand. When a conflict arose – such as a sudden injury, a heated dispute with an angry colleague or spouse, or even a great loss or setback – they have found themselves, miraculously, operating calmly, compassionately and appropriately. They were not victims of the conflict or trapped into a patterned negative reaction. The common attitude towards these experiences of centeredness is that they "just happen." But understanding playfulness allows us to know that we can choose to be playfully centered at any time, that it is a real and easily obtainable psycho-physiological experience.

When a conflict arises and we choose to be playful, we will find ourselves to be not so much at the effect of the conflict, not so attached or dependent on getting our expectations met. Imagine yourself taking time out from your busy schedule just to hang out and enjoy the day. You notice a playground. You wander over and find yourself in the sandbox with a bunch of small children, just playing, re-creating the joys of childhood, building a sandcastle. A little three-year-old, for some reason, kicks over her sandcastle, then walks over and kicks over your sandcastle. You don’t pick her up by the hair and sling her across the playground. Instead you are naturally loving and understanding with her. Your life is not dependent on this little sandbox and what happens to the castle. You have a prior place of fulfillment and relationship much larger than the playground. You recognize the playground for what it is, a place to learn, to grow, to enjoy, and to make mistakes. Being playful in conflict provides us with spaciousness and non-attachment. Compassion and sensitivity naturally emerge.

When I look back, kids have been my greatest teachers. I have learned more from children about living in the present and coming from discovery and about play as a viable way of being than from anyone else. Having three children has provided me with quality instruction. When my children were infants, they taught me about how play brings us into the present. When I come into the house, all scattered and upset and concerned, there is Ali with a big smile, right there, not thinking about next week or concerned about what happened that morning. Right here – Now! When Ali needs something, she lets me know, vocally or physically, right away. When she doesn’t want something, she pushes it away. She comes from her heart all the time. You can’t help but be pulled into the present when you’re with a little child.

I’ve also noticed how, when my mind wanders when I’m with Ali, when I’m worried about the future or thinking about the past, Ali becomes increasingly irritated with me. She’s totally aware when I’m not present. If I’m playing with Ali, and I am right there with her – she’s crawling, I’m crawling, she’s playing with a toy, I’m playing with the toy – she’ll continue. Yet, when my mind is no longer there and I’m only going through the motions of playing, who am I fooling? Not Ali. She lets me know right away by banging the toy on my head or by the similarly effective means of voicing her opinion about my inability to reside in the present. I couldn’t ask for a better teacher.

Children are perfectly equipped for all that’s required of them to learn to speak and walk and do all those things that require an infinite amount of patience and repetition. When they are learning to walk, they don’t see themselves as failing and succeeding, failing and succeeding. When a child moves from point A to point B, he does it in a playful pattern that looks like up – down, up – down, up – down. If you graphed it, it would look much like dolphins swimming. They go down and up, down and up with their flukes. Little ones just go from point A to point B – down and up, down and up. And their playful, joyful attitude is just as strong in the down times as it is in the up times.

A child is the master of concentration. Have you ever watched an infant notice a piece of dirt or food on the floor? She’ll stare at it, be concerned with it, touch it, pick it up and put it in her mouth. She is totally consumed. She doesn’t miss any of it. She’ll hold it out at arm’s length, bring it up close, wave it, hand it to somebody. Her attention is right there with it. There is no separation, really, between what she sees and who she is. She is in the present, discovering. She is her world.

Children are forgiveness. My child will come into the house extremely upset with someone exclaiming, "I hate him! I hate him! I never want to see him again! I’m never going to play with him again!" And within two minutes, all is forgiven. He is outside in the sand box playing with the person that he was so upset with as if nothing had happened. And nothing did in his reality. Everything has been totally forgotten and forgiven and he is with the other child totally in the present, not carrying any ill thoughts or regrets – just there.

The most startling revelation I have when I reflect upon children is this: I was a child once. We all were. And when we ask the question, "What day, what hour, what minute did we leave the child and become the adult?", we realize that we can’t answer that. The truth is, we have never lost it. The child in us is always right there. The child is alive when we give ourselves permission to be completely in the present, to live lightly and simply.