On Play

Daydreamer, paper collage, 2022

The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity.

C. G. Jung

It is my opinion that play is one of the most undervalued and underestimated aspects of creativity, especially in adults, and in particular with regard to its role in the process of divergent thinking, which is often ignored.

To my mind, play is the act of engaging freely with the imagination. Play is characterized by a momentary release of worldly concerns, a letting go of self-conscious restraint that allows one be fully immersed in the world of the imagination, in one’s materials, in the activities of the present moment. For an adult to play freely always seems to me something of a heroic act—one that requires a strong ego, a high degree of self-trust, and is, in many ways, characterized by a kind of ego transcendence. When we play, we are unworried about criticism, rejection, how capable we are (or are not) as artists, whether our work is marketable, etc. We move instead by instinct and largely without thinking. Play is not an act of the intellect. It is a kind of dance. Play is a moment in which the soul takes flight.

It is my observation, based largely on my own inner experiences and evaluations of my creative process, that play gives rise to the phenomenon psychologists call “divergent thinking”, or the ability to generate multiple, often novel, solutions to a problem. It, perhaps, goes without saying that creativity and divergent thinking are highly correlated.

One of the most striking aspects of divergent thinking, for me, is its effortlessness, or spontaneity. It is my opinion that divergent thinking cannot be called upon, or summoned, by the conscious mind. Divergent thinking is a consequence of play. Divergent thinking happens when the ego is transcended to the degree that one can think in a manner that is free-flowing and spontaneous, without care or restraint, much like a child. Divergent thinking is a kind of not-thinking.

Field of Dreams, paper collage, 2023

For example, if I were given a questionnaire that asked me to come up with novel uses for a hot dog, I can assure you—without reservation—that I would not say, “a magic carpet” or “a park bench”. Because I am not capable of consciously summoning a response that is that creative. Perhaps I’d say something that might be considered interesting or creative-sounding, on some level, but I would only be able to generate the most fully imaginative responses of which I am capable if I was playing. And then, it would be effortless. I wouldn’t have to think about it. In fact, just trying to think about it would destroy the imaginative quality of the experience.

When I am playing, divergent thinking is automatic. Ideas that result from divergent thinking often feel as if they come from somewhere else. Indeed, my subjective experience is that these thoughts arrive in my mind in a moment of glee and abandon—perhaps on the wings of a giant hot dog—as if from a higher power or another side of reality.

The more I consider it, the more I think Jung was correct: the creation of something new does not come from the intellect. It comes from the ability to play. If an idea can be consciously and willfully deliberated, it is not the result of divergent thinking, no matter how interesting it might seem.

It seems to me highly probable that children and adults who know how to play (like artists) and who possess other personality traits (like openness to experience or high sensitivity) that correlate highly with creativity would be more likely to generate unusual or intriguing responses on a divergent thinking questionnaire—but that doesn’t mean the response is the result of divergent thinking.

If you want to come up with something unexpected, an image or concept that’s truly born of the imagination, you have to learn how to play. You have to learn how to not think. You have to learn to be a child again.

12 responses to “On Play”

  1. Another fantastic entry, my friend 🙂 And I couldn’t agree more. Just as you stated, “Play is not an act of the intellect. It is a kind of dance. Play is a moment in which the soul takes flight.” This resonates so much with me. And it is something that I am currently, actively pursuing..I’ve been struggling with bringing my current book project together..and so I have begun to play more. Doing things like baking, dancing, singing, practicing a handstand and swinging on a swing set :)…not trying so hard to create but simply playing in the world. My hope is that it will bring some creative flow to my life through the simple act of playing in and with life 🙂 Allowing my “soul to take flight.” Thank you so much for sharing..you’ve unintentionally become my cheerleader and encourager 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am delighted to hear that, my friend! Thank you! Adopting a playful attitude toward life is indeed good for the soul. And I love that you mentioned swinging on a swing set. ☺️ There’s a park where I like to walk sometimes that has a swing alongside one of the trails. Every time I pass by, I can’t resist hopping on the swing. It always brings a smile to my face. I wish you the best of luck with your new book project! I am either see what you come up with—I know it will be fantastic! 😊


  2. Thank you for this! Your writing reaches me on so many levels – stirring excitement and emotion. 🙏🏻When I did Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way program in the summer of 2019, play was the hardest component for me. Scheduling time to “play” was often squeezed out of my schedule for more important things. I’ve come a long way. I now take early morning walks or bike rides, savoring nature and the people passing by. The morning “play” greatly inspires and influences my poetry and writing. ✨

    Liked by 1 person

    • Learning how to play—and how to get myself into a “play state” when my mind is otherwise occupied—has been a challenge for me, too. But I really do think play is at the heart of our creativity, and it enriches our lives in so many ways. Thank you very much for your valuable feedback, Michele! 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I really love your definition of play as free engagement with the imagination and some of the ways that play has worked into and influenced your life! Play truly enriches my life and leads me to so many unexpected yet profound thoughts. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

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