Why Playfulness Matters, Photo of Playful, Fun Family

Recess for Grown-Ups: Why Playfulness Matters

Playfulness Is (Almost) a Virtue

Am I the only one who sometimes wonders, “Whatever happened to recess?” 

I don’t mean for the children. My kids (8 and 4) still have recess. I mean for you and me. Why don’t we grown ups stop to play anymore? 

As of this writing, I’m 37 years old. At this point in my life, I’m expected to be a responsible person. I’m supposed to have a job. A budget. An informed opinion on politics. A plan for my life. 

You know what almost no one expects of me? Total silliness. Play time. Recess. (I say “almost,” of course, because two of the most important people on the planet expect this all the time—my kids.)

But if I’m reading my Bible rightly, I think God might want a bit more recess in our lives—because the root of playfulness isn’t immaturity or innocence or even privilege.

The root of playfulness is humility. 

Practice Smallness

Jesus said the kingdom of God belonged to those who approached it as if they were children (Matthew 18:3). Not childish in intellect, but childish in spirit.

I want to be as wise as a 37-year-old and as trusting as a 7-year-old. I want to be as steady as a 37-year-old and as emotionally expressive as a 7-year-old. I want to be serious when it’s called for. But I also want to be childish enough to know when serious isn’t what’s called for.

The way to manage both of these together isn’t primarily to act like you’re 7. It’s to embrace humility. 

If humility is the root, playfulness is one of the more enjoyable fruits. Just think about it: A proud person can never truly play, because he cares too much about how he looks. He doesn’t want to be “taken in” or duped. The humble person, on the other hand, opens herself up to all sorts of problems. She risks looking absurd or being fooled. 

But only the humble person has the potential to experience those rare moments of delight. Delight, after all, springs from a heart of curiosity and humility and wonder. Humble people are constantly asking questions, constantly finding themselves surprised. Just like kids.

I’m not trying to say that humble people are inherently silly people. The truly humble person takes a lot in life seriously—just not everything. She is most likely serious about ideas, serious about other people, serious about her work. But she probably knows herself well enough to be tremendously un-serious about herself.

GK Chesterton once quipped, “How much larger your life would be if your self could become smaller in it.” That’s about the size of it. Take yourself less seriously. Practice smallness. Play.

The Successful (and Boring) Christian Life

So what does this mean for our relationship to God? 

When we think of the “successful Christian life,” many of us have in mind a person something like this (even if she doesn’t actually exist): She wakes up at 5:30 AM to pray and read her Bible for an hour. It’s quiet. It’s somber. It’s serious. When she goes out into the world, she gives money to the homeless man on the corner. She works with excellence and integrity. When she returns home, she listens attentively to her roommate. She probably doesn’t watch a ton of TV. (She prefers books.) 

That’s not a bad list of habits. But is this person enjoying God? Maybe. Maybe not. Still, I think we’d all agree there’s more to the Christian life than disciplines like this. 

Remember: Jesus said the kingdom of God was for kids—and people like them. What a wonderful corrective to our oh-so-serious approach to Jesus! Kids can be serious. (If you don’t believe me, try eliminating the #1 stuffy in your house. Things will get very serious very quickly.) But kids also know how to play. They play, they pause, they laugh, they cry, they start over. They rarely have to be told to “slow down” and “be in the moment.” Their whole existence is this very moment. 

Whenever I need a reminder for what it means to enjoy another person’s presence, my best teachers are my two children. My daughter will spend 15 minutes trying to come up with new puns for me: it’s not about the puns; it’s about us. My son will find me when I’m sitting on the couch and sit right next to me: he wants nothing more than endless snuggles; again, it’s about us.

In moments like this, I can almost hear Jesus saying, “It really can be this simple sometimes. Time with me really can be fun.”

Stop and Enjoy

The spirit of playfulness aligns beautifully with the practice of Sabbath. Most of us struggle to make this connection, which is why we find a Sabbath discipline so much of a grind. We associate Sabbath with suffering (I can’t do x, y, or z), when God associates it with celebration. Sabbath is a get to more than it’s a have to. On the Sabbath, we not only stop all of our good work, but just as importantly, we enjoy all of God’s good work. That’s the Sabbath command in a nutshell: Stop and enjoy.

That doesn’t mean we should limit our humble playfulness to one day a week. It’s simply to point out that God actually gave us a practice that feels a lot like recess. Through rhythms of work and rest, we can learn to play again—not just weekly, but daily.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a mom of preschoolers or an investment banker: God calls you to stop and enjoy. Take a break from shouldering the burdens of the world. Those burdens aren’t yours to carry anyway. Put your computer away, knowing that you could be “making progress” after dinner, but you’re choosing not to. Take a lunch break to actually eat and catch up with a friend, instead of working through it or maximizing the number of errands you can accomplish.

And then play. Do something you enjoy that isn’t useful. Read a story just because you like it. Read a poem. Write a poem. (It’ll probably be bad. Who cares?) Take a nap. Ride your bike. Dance. Build a sand castle. Build a pillow fort with your kids. Build a pillow fort without your kids. Pretend you’re a dinosaur. Take turns telling jokes.

Your list is going to look different than mine. But have a list. Don’t get so swept up in the seriousness of adulting that you miss the invitation God offers. Try to take yourself a bit less seriously. Embrace humility. Stop and enjoy.

Play. 

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