We all know how to play. We all did it for years – when we were very little.
“I’m a fire engine! This is my siren!”

“Let’s make it that she’s a ballet dancer and she broke her leg.”

“If you touch the ground, you’re out.”
Then at some point reality begins to kick in. You’re not a fire engine, you’re a boy. She is not a ballet dancer, she is a barbie doll with one leg chewed by the dog, and all her hair cut off. We don’t want to play in the living room any more, we want to go and join the football team. Playing becomes silly, not real, a waste of time, something for kids. Reality and real life take on huge importance. And they bring their own rules. Human beings cannot be fire engines. Human beings can only drive fire engines. In order to drive a fire engine, human beings must pass several tests. And so the world of possibility shrinks. The word can’t figures more and more in our thoughts. We try less, explore less, do less. We begin to move in more restricted ways. In some ways, this is great-it’s a vitally important part of socialisation, and joining the adult world. But something very precious can get lost: possibility.
The same thing can happen in creativity. Even though being creative is basically all about playing, the different forms of creative practice bring their own rules. A painter must use paint. Paint must be applied to a canvas. A painter needs to go to art school, in order to learn how to use paint in the best way possible.
And a successful painter may also begin to invent rules for themselves. I must paint first thing in the morning. I must paint landscapes. My next landscape must be more beautiful than my last.
Again, playing by the rules can be very useful. It can help you be recognised as a painter. It can allow you to participate in a world of galleries, exhibitions and not least the buying and selling of art, which in turn allows you to make a living from a craft, and mix with other artists, and contribute to movements and developments in the field. We need some rules.
But too many rules can also become stifling. The painter begins to feel that they can only ever paint. Perhaps they do not allow themselves to use plasticine one day, or write a poem, or set up a cafe. Rules can bring pressure with them: the pressure to perform, the pressure to deliver according to people’s expectations, the pressure to create something which will sell.
The rules can get you very stuck.
So what happens if we try to return to that childhood state of play? A few books have explored this recently: Steven Johnson’s Wonderland, and Tim Harford’s Messy. (Watch Steven Johnson’s TED talk here. It has funky animations .) Both authors appeared on Start The Week to talk about the importance of play in creativity-  listen and be inspired!

Both books celebrate the joys of mucking about, not trying to achieve anything, taking a childlike approach to adult past times. It’s about allowing yourself to make a house out of plasticine, no matter who you are or what you’re trying to do. Not because you’re an architect trying to solve a problem, (although that would be a very nice thing to try if you are) but just because you can – because you’re anybody, because it’s fun to make a house out of plasticine. Playing opens up possibilities, and let us discover solutions in the unlikeliest places.
Playing allows us to see the world in a completely different perspective. Playing allows us to get away from some of those rules which may be stifling us. Whether you’re blocked on the last stanza of your poem, wrestling with a difficult client at work, or despairing that you will ever paint anything other than landscapes again, it may be that pretending to be a fire engine will offer you a surprising way out.
It’s about chucking out the rules. It’s about reconnecting with a sense of joy and discovery and wonder. It’s about allowing yourself to be, to try, to see what happens, without any pressure to have a result, or for the result to be good, or to have to share the results with anybody.
Try this:

  • Get yourself some plasticine. No honestly, do. If you feel aversion to the sort of buying yourself plasticine, interrogate that: what’s wrong with plasticine? Is it silly? Is it too childish? Is it a waste of money? Is it frivolous to spend money on something which doesn’t really have a function other than to be squishy and colourful?
  • Make a house with it.
  • Make a carrot.
  • Make something which isn’t even a thing. Make the shape of your novel in plasticine. Make music in plasticine form. Allow yourself to muck around with it, and to be silly, and then smash it all up and put it away again, ready for tomorrow.
  • If you’re stuck on the next step of a creative project, see what happens if you get silly. Have your character say something daft. Let your brush dance about. Pull faces at your work.
  • Give yourself an hour, in which your sole aim is to have fun with your work. Draw the curtains, turn off your phone, no one else needs to see. Play, let your paper fly through the air, make aeroplanes, make yourself laugh. Even if you’re writing a tragedy. Especially if you’re writing a tragedy.
  • Let yourself be a child again. Let yourself run free in the garden. Let yourself splash in puddles, and feel the joy of cold muddy water running in the top of your wellies. See what you can discover in the puddles. And in the joy of jumping.
Puddles: an unexpected source of joy.