Saturday 3 December 2016

Power play: Children have a lot to teach us adults

Published 08/11/2016 | 02:30

(Stock photo)
(Stock photo)

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is one of those books that imparts new wisdom every time you read it. The famous fable explores many themes, perhaps the broadest one being the idea that the gifts children are born with slowly dissipate as they move into adulthood.

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"Grown-ups love figures. When you tell them that you have made a new friend, they never ask you any questions about essential matters," says the author.

"They never say to you, 'What does his voice sound like? What games does he love best? Does he collect butterflies?' Instead, they demand: 'How old is he? How many brothers has he? How much does he weigh? How much money does his father make?' Only from these figures do they think they have learned anything about him."

Saint-Exupéry wasn't the only thinker to suggest that childhood is an evolved state of being. The metamorphosis to Nietzsche's 'übermensch' ideal celebrates the "innocence and forgetting" of the child; Dostoevsky's pure-hearted 'Idiot' was a child at heart and psychologist Jean Piaget believed that the inventiveness of children is "deformed by adult society".

This is hardly surprising to anyone who has spent any amount of time in the company of children. Most of us have been inspired by their endless curiosity and boundless enthusiasm, even if their say-it-as-they-see-it tendencies can elicit a blush here and there.

Another wonderful aspect of the child's psyche is that they always prioritise playtime, and according to experts, this is where we can learn from them most.

The late developmental psychologist and 'play theorist' Brian Sutton-Smith famously opined that the opposite of play is not work. "The opposite of play is depression," he stated.

Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson (the man who coined the term 'identity crisis') was of a similar opinion. He believed that while a playing child "advances forward to new stages of mastery", the playing adult "steps sideward into another reality".

Other great thinkers believe that a child-like state - at any age - is the seat of creativity. "Every child is an artist," said Picasso. "The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up."

There has been considerable research done on the power of play (for every age group) and, partly in response to this research, there is a growing trend towards what is known as 'adult play' - grown-up bouncy castle parties, Play-Doh sessions.

I'm sure 'adult play' is rewarding in its own right but, personally, I find it unnecessarily infantilising and a touch contrived. Yes, I'm sure jumping into a giant pool of balls is great fun, but what use is it if you're too embarrassed to sing along to a 'Happy Birthday' rendition in the office the following day?

To really benefit from play, you have to cultivate a child-like spirit. It's about changing your priorities and dropping your guard.

A child's delightfully frivolous, pencil-scrawled 'to-do' list went viral a few years ago. It read:

Things to do tomorrow

Eat ice pops

Play

Granted, adults have the small matter of earning a living to consider, but it's worth asking yourself when you last factored playtime into your daily to-do list and, if you did, where it appeared in your order of priorities.

Remember too that playtime should be for the sheer pleasure of the activity. You're not trying to get anywhere or achieve anything. Golf isn't playtime if you're doing it to ingratiate yourself with people who seem important. Reading isn't playtime if you're persisting with an unenjoyable book simply because it's a 'must-read'. As for that niggling feeling of guilt we experience when we're not working? Children know better.

Playtime doesn't have to be childish, rather it's about embracing whatever leisure activity it is you're doing with a child-like spirit.

It's about letting yourself get lost in the moment without thinking about everything you have to do the next day. It's about singing along to the radio without feeling silly, dancing even when you feel like everyone is watching, and occasionally running your hand along a railing simply because it sounds nice.

Notice too that child-like people don't feel compelled to temper their excitement or contain their enthusiasm. And they certainly don't feel like they're old enough to know better when it comes to mischief-making.

As with most things, there is a state of being that precedes a child-like state: vulnerability. Children are vulnerable by their very nature and, by and large, they aren't afraid to try something new or fail in public. More to the point, they'll ask the questions that the rest of us tend to avoid - "Why are you always working? / Why do you drink so much wine?"

During the journey towards adulthood, we learn to avoid these uncomfortable questions and suppress our emotions. Anyone who doesn't is thought to 'wear his heart on his sleeve' (poor critter).

Yet perhaps we ought to commend their relative maturity instead. As Jim Henson put it: "The most sophisticated people I know - inside they are all children."

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