When we think about adult play, our minds invariably turn to sex. Adult toys aren’t typically something we bring to social gatherings in the same way that children do. Yet adult play is not an activity that should only belong in the bedroom. The reason we have co-opted this term to mean sex, is because it is really only in sex that we give ourselves permission to behave like animals. “The most fun you can have with your clothes on!” It is a sad expression. Is sex really the only fun we afford ourselves nowadays?
Play is not only for children. To understand why it’s important for adults too we need to understand why we confine it to childhood. We think of play as a cognitive developmental activity; it helps children to form and express their personalities, to interact, to understand themselves in relation to others and the world around them. Playing helps children navigate confrontation, competition and fairness, broadly and variously using imagination, creativity and effort. These are fundamental life skills. A bad loser in a game of pass the parcel will, unchecked, not make a great team player in the office or friend group.
Our mistake has been to assume that our development as people should be done and dusted by the time we emerge from puberty into adulthood. Play turns into hobbies, messy forms of mucking about are replaced with more cultured past-times, perceived to stimulate us, rather than grow us further. Many of us struggle to access our powerful subconscious selves more readily as adults, to fairly damaging effect. Play engages the subconscious openly; it celebrates and feeds our inner selves, relishing improvisation and the creative energy that ensues when we give ourselves permission to embrace rather than suppress them.
It’s no surprise that so many pioneering creative thinkers were champions of play, for children and adults. The Bauhaus, Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Ray and Charles Eames, Isamu Noguchi were all notable advocates for the power of play, and it’s surely no coincidence that each broke new ground of thought in their respective fields. To see Ray Eames dancing in a cat mask, or the end of year Bauhaus fancy dress parties, you get a sense of febrile imaginations being forged into new realities. We think of “make believe” as a childish activity, but isn’t it just another name for design?
Perhaps the simplest way of bringing play into our lives as adults is to take children more seriously. Let their imagination take ours on a journey; let them know best and teach us the rules. It’s not about being cute and claiming children have all the answers, but it is being open to learning from their ways of seeing, thinking, being. We can understand it as a way of making room for imagination, chance, serendipity and accident. These are techniques that have empowered Jackson Pollock, TS Elliot and Grayson Perry, but they don’t only belong in the realm of art.
Giving space and permission to ourselves to play requires effort and work. It feels awkward and uncomfortable because we are ripping through received wisdom and layers of built-up conscious learning that tell us it is unnatural to trust our natural selves and allow them to take charge. Today, we seek professional help to try and re-engage with our subconscious and reconnect with our inner child. Once we do, we speak of feeling liberated and invigorated, just as we do after a good game of adult play, in the euphemistic sense. We feel whole.
This piece was originally commissioned in 2021 by Atelier Ellis to accompany the Wonder Collection of paints.