A couple of years ago I bought something called the Mindfulness Coloring Book, along with a small packet of colored pencils. It was the first coloring book purchase I’d ever made for myself, and the first one I’d used without sitting down with small children since I was a child myself.

This small volume is filled with lined, black-and-white shapes of various designs, each page providing for hours of coloring delight if one chooses to complete the page in full. The idea behind this product is that adults (and perhaps teenagers as well) need purposeful chunks of doing nothing “productive.”

Shading in the images of a coloring book requires concentration, but it’s a low stress activity unless you’re an incurable perfectionist. Just sitting and coloring, I have re-discovered as an adult, is a soothing activity that helps to calm my emotions, sharpen my focus, and form a whimsical smile upon my face.

I’m not “producing” when I’m coloring. I’m resting, and I’m also playing.
I prioritize my work, but I also prioritize play. Play takes several forms for me, among my favorites being spending quality time with family and friends; going out to dinner or a movie; and sipping a glass of wine or a cocktail. Another big form of play for me is personal travel. I love to explore new places, especially the local haunts that are unique to a particular city.

One of my favorite graduate school professors at Asbury Theological Seminary was a man named Steve Seamands. Steve was pretty intense and passionate while lecturing and roaming about the classroom, and could be the same way in a small group setting. But every now and then, without warning, Steve would break out a small bottle of children’s bubbles and a little plastic wand and begin blowing bubbles at us.

This might sound creepy if you weren’t there; but trust me, it was Steve’s way of injecting some levity and helping all of us to relax and not take ourselves too seriously. It was playful while serving to enhance our learning and growth. It worked.

Something good happened to you a while back, depending upon your age. You grew up.

You became quite responsible and productive, and you learned how to “get things done.” You are to be congratulated, with all sincerity, because some people grow tall, gray, or wrinkled in appearance but never grow up in attitude and action. By comprehensively growing up, you’ve joined a vital club that helps to operate communities, businesses, and every organization under the sun.

Unfortunately, something bad probably happened to you as well when you were growing up. You stopped playing. You stopped coloring and blowing bubbles, because that seemed “too childish.”

During a 2014 interview with NPR, Dr. Stuart Brown, who heads a nonprofit called the National Institute for Play, said, “Play is something done for its own sake. It’s voluntary, it’s pleasurable, it offers a sense of engagement, it takes you out of time. And the act itself is more important than the outcome.”

Regular play, the interview offered, helps us to build community, sharpen the mind, and stay close to the ones we love. Brown said there’s serious consequences to not playing. “What you begin to see when there’s major play deprivation in an otherwise competent adult is that they’re not much fun to be around. You begin to see that the perseverance and joy in work is lessened and that life is much more laborious.”

You think you play, perhaps. You play “with” your kids, but half the time you’re ruminating about other things you need to get done. You play a sport such as racquetball or basketball with friends or participate in a co-ed church softball league.

A lot of the time you’re simply having fun, but too often you’re still thinking about what else you need to be doing and managing some lingering insecurity related to the need to win. You get engrossed at work or household duties, and suddenly get annoyed when you learn that you’ve made a commitment that same day to some form of play.

Watch small children play.

They do it really well. They become fully immersed in the activity of the moment, creating new worlds in their minds, arranging little toys and household items and whatever else they come across that might somehow enhance their overall playful experience. They’re not too stressed out when they’re playing, except for those occasional moments when another child has the toy they want or when an adult tells them it’s time to stop playing and clean up.

Children have all the skills for playing but none of the responsibilities or authority needed to run society. I suppose this is because if children ran the world, they might mess it up and lead us into wars, economic inequalities, environmental disasters, and religious intolerances. Damn kids.

So most of us stopped playing as we grew up and gradually, subtly, but comprehensively began to associate playing with “immaturity,” and certainly with a lack of productivity. “Play around” too much, and you’re a slacker who isn’t serious about personal success or the team’s success. There’s a time for play and fun, most of us will agree, but don’t let it “interfere” with work. Most of us have bought into this mantra and advocate it each day, whether we realize it or not.

Is this really the best we can do?

I’m well-acquainted with the nature of people’s non-playful mentalities, having experienced them up close across several industries during the past 33 years. I can tell you that journalists are too uptight. So are church pastors, as well as financial services professionals, health care workers, and customer service and sales professionals. I’ve worked alongside all of these specific groups, and there’s dozens more besides these whom I’m guessing are just as uptight and fearful of being viewed as “playful.”

You might want to “kick start” a renewed life of play. Here’s what I suggest.

Start playing at work. See if you can still get the job done by injecting a little more levity into things. Dare to encourage others to lighten up in a respectful manner, including your boss. Role-model how someone can be really good at their job while still having a great time. Once others see this in action, they’ll catch on and do more of it themselves because they’re really unhappy inside and desperate to play. (They just might be slow to admit it.)

My second suggestion: Play with whomever else wants to play, provided that playing with them doesn’t include behavior that is harmful to you or someone else. A child who longs to play but has no one to play with that day is very sad. The same goes for a grown-up.

It’s helpful to consider who the key stakeholders are in your life and work; and how their words, body language, and actions dictate how much you decide to play. If you’re not playing much at all these days, chances are you’ve abdicated that right to another person or persons who keep you in serious task mode.

Oh, let me clarify—you keep yourself in that mode.

Do something different today. It could be as “silly” as blowing bubbles, grabbing a coloring book, or even buying some play dough. It’s hard to take yourself too seriously when working with play dough. Buy an extra container or two for co-workers.

Any of these efforts could be that simple, intentional step that kick-starts a fresh orientation toward playfulness, and reminds you of what it was like to be that child.

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I’m an ICF and Hogan certified coach, equipping professionals to develop their authentic human leadership capabilities in the age of AI. My customers are internal HR or L&D professionals seeking coaching for their business clients, as well as business leaders looking to connect directly with a coach for themselves or their team members. Use this link to schedule a call with me to discuss potential coaching services. You can also email me or message me on LinkedIn.