I recently gathered with a small group of women to help plan a dear friend’s wedding. Our conversation included nothing about color-coordinated dresses or processional order but instead — over spicy food and abundant laughter — focused on these all-important questions: Who writes the best love riddles? Will the flag-making art station be next to the paleta truck? Should the stilt walkers lead the short parade from the wedding in the park to the nearby reception? 

In the mix, of course, was a deep honoring of the sacredness of the occasion. We discussed the most meaningful ways to include the parents and honor the ancestors; we perused readings by Neruda, Angelou, Berry, Rilke. But those tender and important conversations were held within a kind of wide-open sense of play. The result was a depth of joy and meaning we couldn’t have found any other way. 

Play is an invitation to approach our daily lives — and even the most important days — with curiosity, openness to surprise, and a sense of possibility and wonder.

In his 1950 treatise on play, Johan Huizinga articulates the nestled proximity of play and sacred ritual — their shared qualities of designated space, collectively understood rules, and a feeling of stepping out of ordinary time. He argues that when Plato wrote of the profound relationship between play and holiness, he wasn’t defiling the holy by calling it play; he was “exalt[ing] play to the highest regions of the spirit.” I take this to mean that in some perhaps intangible way, the stilts and riddles and ice cream truck will contribute as much to the sacredness of the wedding as the serious poetry and vows — that play will help create a sense of joy and what the sociologist Émile Durkheim called collective effervescence. If there’s a ritual that ought to give us a shared glimpse of the transcendent, even a fleeting sense of that which we can’t fully understand, surely that ritual is a wedding.

It turns out that as much as play is an activity (riddles, stilts!), it is also a mindset and attitude of the heart. It’s an invitation to approach our daily lives — and even the most important days — with curiosity, openness to surprise, and a sense of possibility and wonder. In Play Matters, Miguel Sicart describes it this way: “Playing is a form of understanding what surrounds us and who we are, and a way of engaging with others.  Play is a mode of being human. Like literature, art, song, and dance, like politics and love and math, play is a way of engaging and expressing our being in the world.” 

So what does this actually look like? How can we adopt play as a way of being? Inspired by the recent wedding planning session, here are a few suggestions to get started:

  • Get curious. When you play, you likely begin with an acceptance that you don’t know exactly how the game, the dance, the art project will turn out. You probably show up with curiosity and a sense of possibility. It might unfold exactly as envisioned, but it’s just as likely to offer a bit of surprise. You expect this in play; you’re even on the lookout for it. But in the rest of life, it’s easy for a to-do list or typical expectations to define your path. What if you added “get curious” to the day’s plan or activity? What if each morning you asked, “What is possible today?” 
  • Do one spontaneous thing. That schedule for the day? It matters…and on some days there may truly be no spare minute. But just as often, there’s more flexibility than you think. Playfulness involves spontaneity — the willingness to say yes to creative, fun, and silly opportunities that arise…or that you create. That urge to stop what you’re doing and call a friend, dance in your kitchen, or bake a cake…do it! And if you find yourself so out of the habit of spontaneity, make the somewhat paradoxical commitment to do one spontaneous thing today at, say, noon!
  • Be vulnerable. Play requires a certain amount of vulnerability, especially when playing with others. Your tennis serve, your quilting stitch, your voice in the choir may or may not be the most accomplished but through play you stretch yourself and, quite often, get better. When you know it’s play, it can be easier to step outside the roles that most define you: parent, boss, scholar, caregiver. Choose one thing in your life where a bit of vulnerability and experimentation might create an opening for something new, whether in a relationship, a work project, or in your family. If at first it doesn’t go well, go easy on yourself: try responding with the same levity you’d likely have if you lost a round of Scrabble or Pickleball! 

The pull for adults will always be to follow the schedule and the set routine: Do what is required, check all the boxes, make sure your actions have a clear purpose, and above all be efficient. But if you want to be fully alive? Embrace play. Let yourself imagine a world with riddles and stilts, ice cream trucks and parades. It won’t just be more fun but will open the door to greater meaning, joy, and even a liberation of the heart. The theologian Martin Buber famously wrote that “play is the exultation of the possible.” It’s a reminder to me that when the colorful wedding parade makes its way from the park to the party, I should turn my heart over to the drums and tambourines, to the streamers and bubbles — to this embodied exultation of the possible, this great joy of being alive.


Photo by Izzie Renee


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Sheryl Chard, Grateful Living

Sheryl Chard, Grateful Living

About the author

Sheryl Chard is the Director of Education at Grateful Living. She is a lifelong educator, passionate about designing innovative and beautiful spaces in which people are inspired to learn and grow. She has spent nearly three decades teaching and leading in schools and organizations, creating transformative learning experiences rooted in both scholarship and heart. In 2013, she founded the Sofia Center for Professional Development, whose professional offerings support and honor educators in their sacred work.

 

When not engaged in this work she loves, Sheryl can be found connecting with beloved family and friends, traveling to new places whenever possible, creating ritual and ceremony, or camping by a river several miles down a mountain trail near her home in New Mexico. Throughout all, she embraces the lifelong learning and blessings offered by aspiring to live gratefully each day, by over and over saying grace.