How to Play

A conversation with experts, ages 6 to 9 (and one adult).

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First of all, I think if you don't like your job, just quit and do another job that you like.

ADULTS DON'T PLAY ENOUGH. Sure, there’s the late-night libation. Or the 45-minute spin class after work that often feels more like a punishment. Maybe it comes in the form of that long overdue meal to catch up with friends, because, well, we have to eat anyway! But playing for play’s sake, with no utilitarian justification, seems like a dying art — the ultimate luxury in a world of extreme purpose and hyper efficiency. So we turned to the experts to find out how to regain our childlike wonder: Rev (6), Matilda (7.5), and Oona (9). And if that’s not enough, we learn how to start small from Kirsten (38), a Brooklyn-based teacher who’s been working to preserve her sense of play for years. Game on.

Open your mind.

“Sometimes I imagine that I'm a kitty. Because I have many pairs of headband kitty ears. I just really like them and I have a kitty also. And I'm a Leo. When I imagine this, I don't talk, I just meow. I crawl. And I put kitty pants on.”
— Rev, 6

“I imagine I'm an agent. Because my whole life I wished I was a spy. Firstly, I pretend I have very glamorous shoes, and very glamorous pants and shirt, and then I ask a person to play with me and then we just watch people. Some see us, but they mostly ignore us. It's a game I really like. With playing, you can be free and you can do whatever you want or imagine other stuff, like a monster who tries to get you, or cops and robbers. Maybe freeze tag. There's a lot of stuff when people use their imagination.”
— Matilda, 7.5

“When I play, I imagine all different scenarios, like sometimes, Oh no! I'm in this life-threatening situation! I don't really know why I do that. Maybe in my mind I'm like, this could happen to me in real life so I should prepare. Or maybe it's because I know a lot about history. Sometimes I'll imagine I'm in the Titanic or I'm in a natural disaster. A certain period in Vietnam. I pretend like I'm going back a long time ago when there was a war (you probably have no idea what these places are — well you probably know one of them but not the other). I pretend I'm in the war with Egypt and Kush. Kush slash Nubia.”
— Oona, 9

Keep a few tools on hand.

“I usually include a drawing. We were playing a game with my second cousin's stuffie, a slothicorn (half sloth, half unicorn) and we pretended that she was lost and we made all the grown-ups find her. We made little ransom notes and posters and we drew her and said ‘Lost Slothicorn.’ It took 15 to 10 minutes to make the posters.”
— Rev, 6

“There's a lot of stuff you can play with. You can play with dolls or friends or stuffies, which are not really good to play with outside because you can easily lose them. But I think playing is a good way to let out energy and to exercise.”
— Matilda, 7.5

“Well, if I'm imagining I'm in the Titanic or literally anywhere back besides the modern time, I'll try and put something old-fashioned on. Or if I'm imagining I'm in life-threatening situations, I'll try and put something survivally on. I also draw out what I'm thinking of. So I can really get a better understanding. I’m not a perfect drawer, but I have a good sense of what I can draw. So I'll draw it down or write it down. So I don’t forget (I have a terrible memory). Then I'll be like, OK, this is what I'm doing. This is the part of what I'm doing. And then tomorrow I'll do the second part and then so on. I always do it. That's the one thing I never forget to do. If I'm feeling tired and I need to relax, I'll just draw. But let's say I'm in a really enthusiastic mood and I want to practice my handwriting, I'll write it out. Depends what mood. But I usually just do both. First, I'll pick something that happened in reality, or something that could happen in the future. And I'll be like, this is the scene I'm imagining and this is how it's going to feel; this is how I'm going to act; this is what I'm going to wear; and these are the props I'm going to use.”
— Oona, 9

Step away from the day-to-day.

“Screens aren't too good for you. It's not good for your mind. I'm more of an off-screen person. So I mostly want to figure stuff out and do stuff that isn't screens. Just imagine as many things as you can. Until you know how to play better. Maybe just start off with, like, imagining a unicorn right in front of you. And then imagine more things and more things until you know how to play better.”
— Rev, 6


“I think parents should try to make time so they can hang out with their children. My mom always tries to get off calls just to hang out with me. She does have to work a lot but she still helps me with my homework. And I love her very much. She just tries to make me happy. And I am always happy with her. Sometimes we watch a movie and sometimes it's girls’ night, which we like to do, and second of all we love to do activities like cooking because I love pancakes and she makes the best pancakes. Sometimes we get Odeon or Frenchette.”

— Matilda, 7.5

“Stop doing all the things you need to do. Pause. Just put the things down and play with your kids if you have them, or just go to the park and do whatever you like to do. As long as it's not working. You don't even have to do it for hours and hours, just like a good five minutes can be good enough. The advice I give to future Oona is to take a pause every once in a while and just either take a nap, sit down, cuddle with my stuffie, or just do free writing or like pick up a book and read or something like that.”
— Oona, 9

Be true to yourself.

“So first of all, I think if you don't like your job, just quit and do another job that you like. Or if you like a job, just keep doing it. If you're the boss or if you're a client or something, you just need to tell the truth. I know it's really hard for people to tell the truth, but if you don't tell the truth, you won't get what you want. It's easier to talk to someone and use their opinion. You just need to tell the truth and if you don't, people will not know what's going on. People won't know what to do because they want to help you, but they have a hard time knowing what's the trouble that’s making you sad or angry.

If you're not mean, a lot of people will like you and want to be friends with you. And so I always try to be nice. A lot of bullies think it’s good to bully, but it’s actually not. It hurts people's feelings. It's very intimidating.”
— Matilda, 7.5

“I don't really like makeup that much or fashion. I know it's sort of weird. I guess I don't like stereotypic stuff. I hate pink for that reason. It's stereotypic. I'm like, you want me to like this? No, I don't want to like it now that you forced me. I might have liked it if you didn't force me, but you forced me. So now I don't like it.”
— Oona, 9

Don’t forget the organized games.

“We don’t have Uno but we have Uno Flip. It’s fun. It’s really fun. If you get a really good card, you just get so happy. And then Minecraft. Survival mode is hard but creative. Survival is when you can die. But in Creative mode you don’t die. In Creative, you can make many worlds. I really like to build houses in Creative. Because I like to design things.”
— Rev, 6

Taco cat goat cheese pizza. It's a very complicated card game. Adventurous and very suspenseful. In my opinion, it's even better if you're disorganized because then you're like, Oh my god, what is going on? Taco? What? What's next? It makes it really fun.”
— Oona, 9

Of all the pearls of wisdom these young minds bestowed, one sentiment stands out as something to hold especially close: “Everyone,” says Oona, “can play in their own way.”

Which is exactly what one adult is doing ...

Stop doing all the things you need to do. Pause. Just put the things down and play with your kids if you have them, or just go to the park and do whatever you like to do. As long as it's not working.

Finding play in adulthood.

Kirsten (38), a teacher based in Brooklyn, New York, is part of a group called Play Work Learn — an early-stage incubator committed to building a play-filled lifestyle for adults, children, and families. The group focuses on creating spaces to share games, new ethics of participation, inclusion, and engagement where, their manifesto states, “profound risks can be taken and deep healing can take place.”

During one May retreat to Deer Creek Collective Herb Farm in the foothills of New York’s Catskill Mountains, the group created sound baths with gongs, acted out their manifesto, built fairy houses, blew bubbles, and performed a charades-like game with animal cards as prompts. “The crazy thing is, it’s the least luxurious thing,” says Kirsten, “but it feels luxurious because we’re so programmed to be productive all the time.” A counterbalance to a society in which play is discouraged, the group is just one of the ways Kirsten finds joy and release in her day-to-day life. Many of her tactics are solo, simple, and can be done anywhere.

Shed your pretenses.

“For me, it’s taking yourself less seriously. Shed your pretenses. You have to laugh at yourself. We're on this earth for such a short time (even though it also feels like a long time); there's just no guarantees of anything. So it's like, why? Why take yourself seriously? What's the point of it?”

Move — and be moved.

“I started roller skating about seven years ago. I listen to music. Listening to music on its own can be a pretty playful experience. I dance in my apartment by myself when I'm feeling like it. I also watercolor. I'm not a fine artist or anything, but I have all kinds of art supplies around me all the time. I think looking at things that fill your soul, like art, is always an amazing way to reconnect with your own humanity.”

Focus on your senses.

“The experience of play is always a sensual experience, as in, there's a sense involved — you're looking at something, hearing something, smelling something. Mindfulness is really helpful if you want to create a play-based lifestyle. Being aware of your breath, your skin, what surrounds you, your temperature, those kinds of things.”

Start small.

“The last thing I’ll say is from ‘40 ways to experience childlike playfulness as adults,’ which I think was written between the group. One of the ways is going barefoot. Going barefoot and looking up at the sky.”

Our Contributors

Sophie Mancini Writer

Sophie Mancini is an editor at Departures. Born and raised in New York City, she holds a degree in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University and has a background as a writer in brand and editorial.

Joana Avillez Illustrator

Joana Avillez is an illustrator living and working in her native New York. Clients have included Penguin, Random House, HarperCollins, the Museum of Modern Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, the United Nations, the New York Times, the New Yorker, New York Magazine, and the Paris Review.


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