Playing is weird for adults, we do it with children when we have to, some of us enjoy it (I clearly do or you wouldn’t be hearing from me as much) but some adults genuinely feel very uncomfortable with play. However, strip away the shield of a child/children and we all start to look very similar.
I have a confession to make, when it comes to play which is unsupervised by a child, I personally get a bit uncomfortable. I’m not saying I can’t do it, I’m not even saying I can’t have fun with toys, I’m just saying it feels a bit weird. So lets think about this.
I work in a toy shop, I’ve been around toys in this kind of environment from when I was fourteen years old till eighteen then since I was twenty two until now. Obviously I played with toys as a child and I was still making Lego sets at about twelve years old, so apart from four years at university and a couple of years between stopping playing with toys and my first job in a toy shop, I’ve basically been around toys for my entire life. Put another way, toys have played a huge role in my everyday life for pretty much my entire time on this planet and even I feel a bit strange picking up a toy and playing with it when there aren’t any kids around.
I have no alternative frame of reference but I’m guessing that if someone who has had unsupervised access to toys for their entire life can feel a bit peculiar playing in the absence of children then there’s perhaps little hope for other adults out there. The thing is that culturally we see toys as the things of childhood. To play with an actual, bona fide, child’s toy is to use a well-recognised cultural object out of context. Children are the guardians of the toy, to use one, one must typically have a child as one’s guide or one risks feeling ‘silly’.
There are people I know who seem to be exceptions to this rule, the great majority of these are mothers but I do know a few non-mothers among them. These are the kind of people who can pick up a puppet and strike up a conversation with another adult (no kids in sight), or who can hunker down with some toy trains and shout out a big proud ‘woowoo!’ in a shop full of ‘grown-ups’. So why do the rest of us have trouble?
I’m inclined to think it’s got a lot to do with how we define ourselves, or at least it relates to the character we consider ourselves to be. As a teenager I was happy to live in the fringes, be seen as weird etc. but as an adult (and especially as a parent) I have to admit that I’ve become a bit more…normal (for want of a better word). I want a good life for myself and my family and being too unusual can get in the way of job prospects and friendships with other families, so I play my part as an ordinary guy.
To be honest I’ve played ordinary for a long time now, for so long that the hippy-dippy, weirdo pseudo-communist of my teens is hard for me to relate to. In short I’ve purposely become ordinary because ordinary is easier. Teenage John was was a bit of a mess, he had goals but no drive, and so many interests that he had a hard time keeping track, he slept entire days away and took friendships for granted. The sad fact of the matter is that I’ve produced a self-imposed bubble of ‘normalcy’ around myself to avoid becoming him, and one thing that ‘normal’ adults don’t do is play with toys (unless they’re playing with children).
So back to play and what it can tell us about ourselves, for me play exposes my attitudes regarding normalcy in adults and perhaps this is the real heart of what makes me uncomfortable. I lets me see what I’ve done to myself (for what are admittedly good reasons) to become the man I am today. I love playing with my children, and relish in pretend play when I’m with them but on my own or around solely other adults I doubt you’ll see me playing like that.
I know that play is a beneficial part of any person’s encounters with the world (I’ve discussed this before) and it makes me a little sad to realise that I’m the one responsible for my feeling of discomfort when playing alone. However, simply recognising this isn’t sufficient to let me enjoy toys in the same way I did as a child, or in the same way I do when I’m with my own children.
Thinking about how you feel about play (and toys) can have a profound effect on the way you view yourself. For me I recognise that I’ve gotten a little boring as I’ve ‘grown-up’ and that’s not very easy for a ‘toy shop guy’ to admit, but it also lets me see that who I am has been my choice and there’s no reason that I have to accept any part of my character. Perhaps this is simply a silver lining to a very small issue.
I still love toys when playing with with my children and I think toys and play are absolutely vital components of a healthy childhood (and adulthood). I’ve simply had to admit the peculiar fact that when push comes to shove, as an adult making decisions on how I’d spend my own time, I’m unlikely to choose playing with toys as a top activity. The next step is figuring out why I’ve produced this self-imposed exile from this little corner of the world of imagination and play.
Sorry for the downer today people, feel free to share your own revelations about yourself that you’ve discovered through play. Lets hope there aren’t too many boring old fuddy duddys like me out there. As always thanks for reading, All the best, John