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Playfulness as a Practice

Updated: Sep 7, 2020

Comfortable with a certain level of buzzing activity in my classroom while I was a fifth grade teacher, there were a number of times another adult entered our learning community asking, "Where is your teacher?" To my amusement, there were times this was asked quite literally over my head! My full height of 5 feet allowed me to blend in with my young students and my "baby face" seemed to add another layer of camouflage in such situations. As an adult learner, I've also come to understand that even among my peers I carry an air of impishness that contradicts my age as well...

Part of my experience in the Transformative Leadership program at Tai Sophia Institute (now MUIH) was for each of us to identify and express our individual promise of life. That is, to hone in on how others experience our presence and to understand how our unique presence makes a difference in relationship with others. Upon finding the words to explain it, we were then challenged to live more fully into that promise with greater intention and attention.

To begin this process, we met in small groups around the room and offered specific words or phrases to each person in our group. These words were not to be descriptors of their character traits, but to express how life showed up for you in the presence of that person. Each member of the group began, "In your presence, Kristen, life shows up as..." or "In your presence I know..." All that weekend, as I collected these words and phrases from family, friends, and colleagues, I found two strong themes around joy/fun and nurturing/inclusion.

When the right phrasing came to me in a follow up group session, I felt it "click" and as did the rest of my group. Our final activity that weekend was for us to gather together in our full cohort of about 30 members and declare our promise to the whole group. As each person stated theirs, I could feel their promise almost as strongly as I felt my own - as each owned with words what I had grown to know about/feel from each of them in their presence. Nearly a decade later and I still have the original paper upon which I wrote my promise that weekend: "I, Kristen Lutjen, promise that wherever I am, no matter what, life will show up as an inviting, delightful playground."

During our next leadership seminar, a classmate was in the middle of our large group circle being led by one of our mentors through an exercise on letting go of a habitual response that was not serving her well. In challenging my colleague to show up in a new way to the situation, our mentor made an interesting request of her as means of getting there: to physically walk differently with the situation. Prompted to play around with loosening up her walk, my fellow classmate became frustrated and claimed that she just couldn't - she didn't know how. Our classmates knew exactly who could help as they began to look at me.

Seeing an opportunity where my promise could be of service, I made an offering to walk with her and she accepted. Next, we were hand-in-hand as I led her in a "loosey-goosey, shimmy-shaky" walk around the circle and we had a good laugh with it. Soon she was walking on her own again with a looseness in body and attitude. As always, when witnessing a fellow classmate create a small but important shift, the experience provided each of us our own lessons to ponder. For me, the experience was a reminder of how living my promise could be of service to others. Perhaps it was time for me to stop hesitating so much in extending such offers to others. More generally, the experience was a good reminder on how beneficial it can be to face challenges with a sense of playfulness.

In the weeks and months following the experience of creating and declaring my promise, I faced challenges with greater attention and intention and steadfastly lived into my promise as best I could, especially at work. There was one particular moment in the classroom when my students seemed especially distracted and off-task. I could feel my frustrations rise and was about to raise my voice. As I took a breath to do so, I became aware of my breath, my body, and my practiced response to these physical and emotional tensions. I paused and thought of my promise. A couple more breaths allowed some space to create a shift within me. And as within, so without...

Instead of raising my voice, I created a mischievous, conspiratorial tone with it. I invited an element of playfulness to the situation and extended the invitation to my students. Dramatically throwing up my hands, I announced an immediate suspension in what we were doing since it just wasn't working and that we would completely switch tracks on how to approach our lesson. This mindful shift into playfulness allowed me to approach my students and the content of our lesson with greater ease and joy. As I shifted my own energy, the energy in the entire room shifted and tensions eased. Remembering and living more fully into my promise was like hitting a reset button for all of us and we all benefited. This is just one of many instances in which taking a moment to be present in the moment and intentional with my response to it, allowed me to shift out of frustration or upset and more fully into ease and even joy.

As I reflect now on what this experience was like for me then, my attention is once again brought to the most challenging part of my promise, "wherever I am, no matter what..." No matter what.

When I first declared myself to be the presence of an inviting, delightful playground no matter what, I knew that some occasions would be more somber than others and call for more subtle tones of such an invitation. But, like so many others, I never imagined what 2020 would bring or how to live my promise in the middle of a pandemic! And here I will fully admit that some aspects of this pandemic have proven much more difficult for me to be the presence of anything remotely playful or inviting. But all it takes is a moment of mindfulness - paying attention to what is and holding the intention of partnering the moment with my promise so as to shift gears and create anew.

As I rededicate myself to living more fully into my promise during the more challenging aspects of this pandemic, I extend the invitation of playfulness to you. In whatever ways you can, even in the smallest of ways, look for and jump into the opportunities to approach a moment with playfulness. Yes, we are living through some serious times and we would be wise not to underestimate the power of play during such times. Yes, we may be missing out on typical ways to relax and have fun, and we may be missing out on even more than meets the eye by how we're responding to some of the new demands being made upon us. In the midst of uncertainty and living within new boundaries and restraints, we can actively look for, create, and play into the spaces of a moment. Playfulness can be a practice, just like yoga or meditation.

There are numerous ways to "play around" in a moment - doing or saying something with more ease or lightheartedness, in our approach to and interactions with others, or even in how we walk into the next room! In fact, instead of mindlessly walking into the kitchen right now, I'm going to "loosey-goosey, shimmy-shaky" my way over there and then sing and dance my way through making lunch. Who knows, maybe my partner will join me, even in just having a good laugh...

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