Play and being playful can mean different things to different people. The psychiatrist Jacob Moreno described playfulness as both an inner and an acquired skill we can develop.
Playfulness enables us to practice being spontaneous and discover creative new solutions to problems. He describes how we need to practice spontaneity and playfulness with others in order to become more spontaneous and playful ourselves. In other words, ‘practice together makes playful!’
Depending on how trusting and secure we are, our attempts at play can have a positive or negative manifestation. For example, “I was only playing” can be an excuse for clumsy or hurtful behaviour. More negative types of play need to be recognised for what they are and be replaced with more consensual collaborative play.
We need to practice spontaneity and playfulness with others in order to become more spontaneous and playful ourselves.
Let’s consider a case study of a man called Roger who learned during his early school years that taunting other children in the playground was fun, so long as you were a part of the group doing the taunting. Roger’s stepfather, who constantly teased and made fun of his failures, led him to develop a negative style of playfulness and humour that was inappropriate, hurtful, and provocative.
In his work with a therapist, Roger eventually saw how this experience of teasing and bullying play had impacted his current attempts at communication. As a result, a more thoughtful, and less hurtful playfulness evolved in his relationships.
Therapist Sue Jennings has written about three types of developmental play:
Play is therefore a developmental process.
Through difficulties in our developmental years we can sometimes become avoidant of one of these types of play. For example, through a lack of basic trust developed in the first stages of play we can become fixed within a safe, predictable role or escape into a solo hobby; missing out on the achievement and challenge of a more adventurous, shared, physical or social world.
Here are a few questions for you and your partner to consider:
A good balance between all three types of play in a relationship is a fortunate position to be in, suggesting that you have a wide range of ‘play possibilities and abilities’ to draw upon.
This week, try out, either alone or together, a type of play that you usually avoid. By doing so you’ll extend your shared playground and start to discover more of your own or your joint creativity.
Martin is a qualified and registered UK psychotherapist, working in private practice with couples and families.