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3 Stages of Play ~ The Evolution of Life’s Playground

“First you must learn to play by the rules, then you must forget the rules and play from your heart.”  ~ Anonymous.

Play occurs in three stages, each representing a different period of growth and awareness. As we evolve through these stages, we change our perception of life, and redefine the parameters and possibilities of life’s eternal playground.

Stage 1: Innocent Play
Stage 2: Structured Play
Stage 3: Mature Play

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Stage 1: Innocent Play

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” ~ Albert Einstein

Play begins with the innocence of a child who knows no limits and believes anything is possible. Her heart is pure and her mind is full of wonder. She is immersed in the present moment, while connected deeply to her imagination and the magic of life that exists beyond the five senses.

At first she is content with not knowing what she doesn’t know. She is happy playing in the mud without knowing that it is called “mud”, what it’s made of and how it got there. But soon the thirst for knowledge takes over. She asks questions and is told answers. She gathers facts, everything from calling a tree a “tree”, to asking where babies come from. Soon blissful ignorance and the emptiness of mind are filled with paradigms that delineate and define life. And what was once an boundless playground is increasingly determined by, and filtered through, learned thought. Hence, structure is born.

It is natural and necessary to leave the stage of Innocent Play. It is not sustainable to continue living there, for in stage 1 there is naivety, and a need for parameters to live in a concrete, material and dangerous world.

Stage 2: Structured Play

“The road to excess leads to the palace of wisdom…for we never know what is enough until we know what is more than enough.” ~William Blake

Structured Play is a reflection or manifestation of the mental constructs within our mind. These paradigms or beliefs narrow our sense of wonder or awareness into concrete view points or opinions about what is right, wrong or reasonable. In other words, they define the parameters of our playground.

A child may believe she can go anywhere, including across a busy street, unless we create healthy boundaries, which is what structure offers. Also, logistical details such as scheduling and resources are necessary for a daycare to function properly or a holiday to be enjoyable. In other words, structure creates the container for play to be both safe and fun! However, too much structure and we become imposters that siphon the open spaciousness of our children’s hearts and minds. We impose our agendas on them, and detract their creativity and free will.

The school system is an example of this. Play is the language of children, and yet we feel the need to fill their minds with knowledge that we think will serve them. We skill and drill, and expect them to be able to count to 100 by the time they are five years old. The pressure for academia is a manifestation of our thirst for knowledge, need for control and certainty, and our underlying fear that security is compromised without them. We don’t trust the fluid language of play, because we have lost touch with our own innocence.

A recent experiment showed that when a teacher demonstrated to a small group of children the many ways to use an abstract toy, the children used it far less than when the toy was simply placed in front of them with no demonstrations at all (read the full article).

“It is not the answer that enlightens, but the question.” ~Eugene Ionesco

We have lost trust with ourselves, our creative capacity, our intuition, and our ability to explore the unknown. Structured play is increasingly replacing unstructured play. We are trying to make play productive when it is meant to be organic, spontaneous and fluid.

Beliefs or knowledge limit our playground in two specific ways:

Whenever you label something you limit it, and stop learning.

Labels: We say that is a “tree” and that is a “cat”. But we never stop to examine the implications of our beliefs. We only say it is a “tree” because someone told us so. In Eckhart Tolle’s book A New Earth he says that if a child points to a tree and asks what it is, don’t tell the child it is a “tree”, rather tell him it is called a “tree”. With the first answer, the label limits our understanding of this object and our connection with it. The latter creates room to be curious and in a state of wonder, open to possibilities. Just like with the abstract toy, when we create room for uncertainty we expand our creative playground.

Rules: Rules are beliefs on how things ought to be, including behaviours, attitudes, systems and cultures. There are countless rules we make up to be true that limit our capacity to play. Common ones include, “I need to do the dishes before we can play”, “Work first, play later”, “Idle hands are the work of the devil”, “It’s bad/selfish to put myself first”, “We can’t because this is the way we’ve always done it”, “I need to be ladylike”, “I need to be strong”. Just like labels, these rules were passed down to us as part of the collective story of humanity, and they define the parameters of our playground.

“The young man knows the rules, but the old man knows the exceptions.” ~ Oliver Wendell Holmes

We cannot live without rules and labels, in the same way we cannot live without knowledge and academia. The problem isn’t the structure, but rather our unconscious identification with, and attachment to, it. Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” What he means is, what we do not question defines us and our life. A belief once examined has the opportunity to be held in a conscious way, a light way, where there is room for creative choice and the capacity to freely define the parameters of life’s playground.

Stage 3: Mature Play

“Sometimes you have to drop the rake and play in the leaves.”
 ~ Douglas V’Soske

In Innocent Play, we don’t know that we don’t know, and are blissfully content in uncertainty. In Structured Play, we know that we know, and are frightfully uncomfortable with uncertainty. In Mature Play, we realize that the more we know the more we don’t know, and find wisdom and humility in living with an open and uncertain mind.

Stage 3 is about living in balance between innocence and structure, with conscious awareness and creative choice. Here we reconnect to our innocence by embracing the feeling of joy that is our birthright. We are humble in our awareness that life is a mystery unfolding in every moment, and that we are here to grow and evolve, and yes play within the mystery. We are aware that most of what we believe to be true is made up, and that life itself is a story that we are co-writing with the rest of humanity. We are making it up as we go with our beliefs and rules and labels. Therefore we don’t take ourselves as seriously, and specifically, we don’t take our thoughts as seriously as we once did. We are open to the idea that what we currently believe to be true will soon lose its structural imprint in our mind; therefore we hold it loosely, question it regularly, and are open to new insight and understanding. We live fruitfully with a beginner’s mind, comfortable with not knowing, and with the discernment to navigate the perils of human existence and “play the game”. We are both able to play by the rules, and also redefine and transcend them such that we are not defined or bound by them, but rather playing from our heart.

Stage 3 is where we enter mastery. We have one foot on the earth and the other in our eternal Self. We have one foot in the adult and the other in the child. We walk lightly, as a child does. We understand that life is temporal, always changing, and full of challenges, pain, suffering, as well as joy, celebration and love. And we see all of it, the profane and the profound, as part of life’s grand playground, with our purpose being to enjoy life as fully as we can, do our best, manifest our unbounded, infinite creative potential, and leave a legacy of service and love.

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“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” ~ Albert Einstein

The evolution of life’s playground is a continuous unfolding, an expanding self-awareness and awareness of life. It is an understanding that evolution is reliant upon the interdependance between our creative, playful spirits and the intellectual capacity, or knowledge, needed to live in a concrete, complex world. But even deeper, it is a recognition that structure is meant to be in service of the innocence and wisdom of our inner child and Divine Self. Just like academia is meant to serve play, the intellect is meant to be be a supporting structure, or container, for our creative spirit’s full expression. We’ve put the cart before the horse and made structure the master and play the student (at the back of the room!), when really it is our playful spirits that are meant to determine the structural content necessary for its full expression, including the expression of our spirit and purpose on earth.

“Falling in love you remain a child; rising in love you mature. By and by love becomes not a relationship, it becomes a state of your being. Not that you are in love – now you are love.” ~Osho

About the author: Vince Gowmon presents keynotes and playshops and offers somatic Life Coaching and Counselling in person, on Skype and over the phone. For more of his writing, subscribe to his free e-newsletter. You can also follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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Related Training:
Remembering to PlayInspiring Joy, Freedom & Self-Care

Related Video:
How Big is Your Playground? ~ Expanding Imagination & Perception

Related reading:
6 Ways to Live a Playful Life
Doodle, Dream and the Dance of Co-creation

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