catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 14 :: 2011.07.22 — 2011.09.01


Play is your secret weapon

Play can be a scary concept for those of us who have had traumatic, competition-ridden game nights growing up, or who cringe at the idea of another job-site team-building exercise lead by a well-meaning-but-clueless, retired drama teacher. When we started looking at how to encourage play in our own family, we had to do some serious work first.  

Vulnerability in our personal past has been met with mixed results, and whenever a new opportunity to be vulnerable has presented itself, all negative experiences crowd their way to the surface of our memories.  In a panic, we’ve politely bowed out with a “no, thank you” in order to, once again, save ourselves from almost certain re-victimization and subsequent doom, but as we looked at this we couldn’t help but feel like we were cheating ourselves out of a more substantial way of looking at reality.

We had to ask ourselves, “What could we be missing?” Through our relationships and encounters with others over the years we’ve come to the conclusion that if we all don’t work to build trust and seek to be vulnerable with one another, it is entirely possible that we could miss out on experiencing (or witnessing) certain attributes of God (as embodied in one another) that could be key in giving us the courage to take the next risk in our lives, which, in turn, could lead to a rut and, eventually, spiritual paralysis.  

What does play offer in this process of trust and vulnerability? If a trust statement sounds like: “I believe/am convinced that the goal/agenda/purpose of this activity/relationship/life is authentic and there is something important to me contained in it, so it warrants my vulnerable act,” then play answers the call for an authentic moment.  Those who intend to play believe in the intrinsic value of the experiment — the “not knowing what comes next.”  

What could play look like?  We took members of our church family along with us to a worship event three hours north of where we live where we were sharing our music and play experiments.  We brought supplies that we felt would encourage a spirit of playfulness with those who attended (cardboard, duct tape, paper, pens, magazines, scissors, etc.).  Near the beginning of the event, the adults who came created an invisible cushion between themselves and us, most likely due to their unfamiliarity with our approaches.  The children, oblivious to this cushion, wasted no time in creating their cardboard-and-crayon masterpieces.  We provided many ways for the adults to engage, and invited them numerous times to follow the children’s lead in creating a joyful noise together. It wasn’t until the two-year-old son of two attendees switched off our power strip and effectively powered down our entire setup that things started to shift.  In the face of the inconvenience, our family’s response was a heightening of our playful engagement.  When those attending saw that we were obviously not deterred by or, indeed, even bothered by this potentially set-ending incident, something in the room seemed to spark.  The adults immediately stepped forward and joined the children in their free play — building forts, making collages and hats and general noise-making.

Play can get us ready for the unexpected, in any situation.  It also models a permission-giving, inclusive environment where room is made for all expression.  If this utopia is possible, it seems odd that we would settle for anything less, doesn’t it?  But the fact remains that our deep-rooted humiliations continue to haunt our present reality.  When we define fear, we say that we are convinced that a hurtful history is bound to repeat itself. We anticipate the pattern, and, in a way, we gravitate to it because it is familiar to us, as stifling as it may be.

Imagination breaks through this hellish cycle, in unexpected ways.  When our imagination and curiosity are peaked, we get glimpses of the as-yet-unimagined potential of life, so, in that way, it points to hope.  Unfortunately, when our shamed, humiliated selves catch wind of this hope and potential, many times we mistake the object of our fascination as the thing that actually gives us hope, rather than a thing that points to the hope promised to us by our Creator. In our early development, if this misunderstanding goes unchallenged, the roots of consumeristic grabbing-for-gold finds fertile soil and we carry a “hope-lust” with us into adulthood.  Toys mean joy and relationships are too risky.  Playful fascination turns into insatiable objectification and all wonder turns to obsession.  

Johan Huizinga writes, “Play provides liberation from the bonds of the present system of living.”  Play is where imagination is allowed to flourish and risks are taken freely.  We allow ourselves and others to get lost in character, lost in the world that is set up in the moment. 

Play is the ongoing process of offering and accepting offers.  Improvisational theatre contains some basic principles that encapsulate the spirit of play.  In improv, to “play along” means to accept all offers in a scene.  For instance, if a person starts an improv scene with another person saying, “Hey Frank, what are you dressed up for?” in order for the other person to continue to “play along,” he has to accept the offer that in that scene, his name is Frank and he is wearing (imaginary) fancy clothes. He answers, in character, saying something like, “My parents are renewing their vows again.  Do you want to come along?”

Also, in improvisational theory, it is crucial that those in the scene have a grasp of what it means to block an offer.  In the case of Frank and His Fanciness, all that the person would have to say in response to the offer in order to block it is, “What are you talking about?  I’m not Frank.”  A block leaves no room for the scene to continue without a considerable amount of effort.  When we looked at this idea of offering and blocking, it was easy for us to see the correlation with our experiences in vulnerability.  Also, it was frightening to think how often we ourselves were the ones who did the blocking.

This game illustrates the idea of accepting and blocking an offer:


PLAYER 1 opens an imaginary chest and lifts something out of it and shows it to PLAYER 2.

PLAYER 2 makes a remark that either names or describes the item.

PLAYER 1 accepts the remark (as an offer) and adds his or her own open-ended continuation remark.


PLAYER 2: Nice watch!

PLAYER 1: My grandfather found it on the road. How old do you think it is?


PLAYER 2: that’s shiny!

PLAYER 1: is it as sweet as it looks?

PLAYER 2 (takes a bite): it’s an onion!

HINTS: Use pantomime to add to the fun of this game.  Practice often and notice when blocks or difficult offers happen.

Play, as a tool, tricks our minds into making more daring choices than we had originally thought possible and allows us to risk more because we convince ourselves “less is at stake.”   But is less at stake, truly?

In community, so much of what we do with one another consists of expression from an “advantaged position.” Often, we take this approach to avoid the pain and humiliation of someone taking advantage of our vulnerability. But when we all join in a harmless game, we make a decision to take the “disadvantaged position” — creating a sort of mutually-agreed-upon crisis — and something alive takes shape. This is play — this decision to accept the offer of inclusion and to offer it back. It is all too easy to swat away the outstretched hand, so we need to be cognizant of the ways we do that. When we allow play to manifest more and more, we exercise an openness that spills over into every aspect of our lives.

In our family, we love making up silly songs, talking in crazy voices and pulling faces.  When our children see that we can let our guard down and play, life doesn’t seem so insurmountable to them.  They see, by our example, that we refuse to be led around by our fears.  The hope that the practice of play offers is genuine and infectious.  It invites community and welcomes collaboration.


  • Play allows for us to make room for one another.
  • Play can set things in motion that work and serious effort cannot.
  • Play can release us to look at each other as equals, tied to a mutually agreed upon crisis.
  • Play gives us an opportunity to exercise compassion, mercy and humility.

    • Compassion: who needs to be included, and how do we make room?
    • Mercy: who doesn’t “deserve” it, and how can we still make room?
    • Humility: who doesn’t have the skills, but wants to be involved, and how do we make room?
  • Play is not only helpful, but it points to an ultimately sustainable existence where joy and mutuality are regularly experienced and practiced.
  • Through play, we can be more thoroughly convinced that our humanity is acceptable to God.
  • When we notice and address the areas in our lives where we BLOCK (refuse to develop an action that has been offered), we can dismantle the harmful thought process behind those actions.
  • Play introduces us to the substantial practice of love, wherein we continually choose the disadvantaged position in order to see unexpected results.

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