Be Playful

Posts Tagged ‘playfulness

Photo by SlapBcn.

Clowns are brilliant. They bring joy and laughter to the world. They’re larger than life, clumsy, confused, very silly, and full of nonsense.

I’ve been reading a lot about clowns and jesters recently, working out how to be a clown in my everyday life. Here’s what I’ve learnt.

Unpredictable Free Spirits

Clowns have a freedom and unpredictability of spirit. They are willing to say, do, and be something different, taking the risk of being ridiculed.

One of the keys to being playful is having a freedom and unpredictability of spirit. In the midst of daily drudge and routine everyday clowns bring sparkles and smiles through a moment of unconscious sillyness or spontaneous dancing.

It’s also true that the world cannot become a better place without people who are willing to do and say things differently, to risk being ridiculed. To stand up against the norms of society is brave and can be dangerous, so getting a few laughs on the way is no bad thing.

Larger than Life

Photo by dct.

Clowns are larger than life; they are disproportionate to the world. This is both in terms of their physical appearance (huge shoes, red noses, crazy hair), and in terms of their emotions and charisma. The happiness and sadness of clowns is both more wonderful and more terrible than happiness and sadness in everyday life.

Maybe wearing a red nose every day isn’t the way you want to go, but think of other things you can do to stand out, make people smile, and get others talking to you. Wear three watches or a kooky scarf, a sparkly brooch or a flower in your hair.

One of my favourite things to do is to wear a cowboy hat when I travel on trains. It’s amazing how many more people talk to me just because I look a bit different, and it definitely makes people smile too.

Clumsy and Confused

Clowns often get confused between what is valuable and worthless, and struggle to tell the difference between truth and folly. In doing this, they embody the confusion and darkness of the unconscious world. This is good for making others think about what is valuable and true. As one academic writer on clowns, William Willeford, puts it:

‘It may be true that our action and knowledge rest on beliefs which we assume to be more adequate than they are.’

A lesson to be learnt from this is the need to embrace complexity. As much as we might love to find a final answer to our problems, a final truth to solve our worries, it can be helpful to realise that the world is rarely as simple as we would like it to be. In knowing this complexity, we are set free from the need to control everything and everyone.

This isn’t an excuse to wallow in our problems and not seek a way out, but it does make us aware that the way out is more likely to be a long and winding road than a hop, skip and a jump.

The confusion of a clown can help to clarify things for ourselves. In the confusion of clowns, we see a dissonance between what is valuable and worthless, and we begin to realise the times that we have listened to the pedlars of broken dreams. We also realise the times that we are truly listening to our real dreams, the inner dreams from the depths of our being.

Full of Common Nonsense

Photo by Yodel Anecdotal.

Jesters – the clowns in the courts of Kings and Queens – would wear bells on their hats. This was so they could shake their heads if anyone tried to instil some ‘common sense’ into them. The bells would drown out what was being said to them.

There is often a lot of sense in common sense, but equally often there is a lot of nonsense. The next time you hear someone peddling nonsense in the name of common sense, remember the bells on your hat, and give them a shake.

The magic tricks that clowns would perform in the courts of Kings, and on the streets, were designed to contrast with the ‘magic’ of the kings and priests that was accepted as common sense.

Some kind of ‘magic’ today means that the majority of the world is caught in the trap of poverty whilst a small minority feast on riches. Some kind of ‘spell’ makes us think that this is normal.

Magic tricks make us aware that we may be believing illusions, but also offer the possibility of magical moments of change, when hope breaks through in the most desperate of circumstances.

In Summary

  • Clowns are free spirits – a good example to follow.
  • Clowns are wacky and larger than life – another great way to be.
  • Clowns are confused and clumsy. This can help us navigate the confusion and clumsiness in our lives that we’d prefer to ignore.
  • Clowns don’t think much of common sense. They know that being sensible can be a lot of nonsense.

Photo by moriza.

If you have lived in a city or large town for any period of time, you will have probably noticed how commericialised the city centre has become. If the centre of a city defines the identity of that city’s residents, then it would be true to say that the urban dweller’s primary identity is that of the consumer. Who we are is defined by what we are able to buy.

This means that it is hard to do anything playful in a city without buying something. Shopping, the cinema, restaurants and cafes, the local pub – even some city parks now charge an entry fee.

So, here are some brilliant completely free ways to be playful in the city. As a bonus, many of these ideas subvert the high-pace and the commercialisation of city life.

1. Go on a Zen Walk

Go to a busy place in the city that you like, maybe even somewhere you pass every day. Decide on a short route of about 500 metres (1/4 mile). Walk the route as slowly as you dare, breathe slowly, and let yourself become part of the city space. Pause at the end of your walk to reflect on things you noticed.

2. Go flash-mobbing

Join a large group of people in a synchronised, seemingly random act. If there isn’t a flash-mob group in your area, set one up. For inspiration, there are some great videos on YouTube.

3. Join your local freecycle group

Buck the buying addiction and give stuff away. You’ll also find many of the things you need for free too.

Note: Freecycle does send a lot of emails. I recommend setting up an email filter with a folder dedicated to freecycle.

4. Find a spot you like and read a book

You can get free books on bookmooch, or from your local library.

5. Give someone a smile

On the bus, across the street, in the shopping mall. Most people will look away, but nothing can beat getting your smile returned.

6. Visit a museum

Did you know that it’s completely free to visit all publicly owned museums in the UK, from galleries of art, to museums dedicated to local relics? I love the silence in museums, and they are great places to get inspiration, or to sit quietly and day dream.

7. Do an A-Z walk

Look up the first street (beginning with ‘A’) and the last street (beginning with ‘Z’ or a nearby letter) in the index of a city map. Walk the most direct route from one to the other.

8. Join in with a carnival

Carnivals and festivals have a lively, vibrant atmosphere. Don’t worry about not fitting in. One of my favourite festivals in Manchester is the Muslim celebration of Eid. I wouldn’t feel comfortable joining in, but I love the buzz of the festival atmosphere.

9. Be an insurgent for peace and justice


Photo by kalandraka.

Whether it’s starting a free hugs campaign, offering to spend time with an elderley neighbour, or inviting a homeless person around for a meal, you can start to be the change you wish to see .

Your Thoughts

How have you been playful in the city? What other ways can you think of for being playful? Let me know how you get on if you try any of these.

dont-shoot-the-clownsIn March 2003 trainee lawyer Jo Wilding visited Iraq as an independent observer to the Anglo-American invasion. She found many shattered lives; people’s homes and businesses were frequently destroyed by stray bombs. Others were shot or imprisoned and tortured arbitrarily if there was even a remote suspicion that they were part of the insurgency against the invading forces. Experiencing firsthand the everyday brutality of war led Jo to question the way the world is. She started wondering why we allow anyone to produce weapons, let alone use them:

‘Why is it considered a legitimate way to live, for a person to get up in the morning, kiss his or her kids goodbye, and go and spend the working day experimenting and discussing and planning and building novel and ever-more efficient ways of severing soft, beautiful, living human bodies?’

She also asked people in Iraq about their experiences under the rule of previous dictator Saddam Hussein, and was told many stories of oppression and torture. Yet the US – and Britain – supported Saddam’s regime whilst it suited them. This led Jo to ask:

‘How many people tonight will be tortured in the darkness in countries which our governments still support, fund, arm, supply with torture instruments? And what will it take for us to stand up and stop them?’

Whilst in Iraq observing Jo met a 4 year old child called Mohammed. His house – a farmhouse in the countryside, many miles from any US or British targets – had just been bombed from the air. His sister was dead, his newlywed aunt missing, his home destroyed. Yet in the hospital, Jo’s friend Shane started blowing bubbles – allowing Mohammed to forget the devastation for a moment and break out into a smile.

‘Of course his trauma would take more than a bubble to heal, but the memory stayed with me. A friend set up a website called Circus2Iraq. I sent out an open email inviting circus performers to come to Iraq, warning that it was a dangerous place and travel insurance wouldn’t cover it. Despite poor pay and conditions, I got a bunch of clowns.’

In January 2004, Jo started a tour of Iraq with the circus. Parents and teachers saw children who had not smiled since the invasion break out in laughter. Children who had been obsessed with the war, drawing only pictures of planes, guns and soldiers, began to draw clowns – to see the possibility of a world outside of war and violence.

Reading ‘Don’t Shoot the Clowns’ I saw the power of play at work in a country completely marred by horrific violence. I began to realise just how powerful playfulness can be. Four things stood out most for me:

1. Playfulness heals

Seeing a circus was not going to cover over the wounds and bring instant healing for the children of Iraq. But it did give them an opportunity to laugh, and to begin to be children again.

Play is healing both for those who engage in it, and for those who witness it.

2. Playfulness engenders trust

Jo’s visit to Iraq was primarily as an independent observer, documenting atrocities under Saddam, and those committed by the occupying forces. Many people were afraid to tell their stories for fear of reprisals – thinking that Jo may be on the side of the British and American soldiers.

Seeing Jo as a clown, however, bringing delight to the eyes of children and adults alike, allowed people to trust her.

Another occurrence of trust through play happened when the circus visited a town in Kurdistan. They were asked for $60 each to stay – money they did not have. However, after giving a circus performance for the soldiers on duty, they were let off paying the fees. Play is an act of mutual giving – and can get you a free ride.

3. Play crosses cultural boundaries

In spite of language difficulties, and being in an increasingly conservative Muslim country, the circus was well received everywhere they went.

The children watching clowns from other countries – from countries that were invading their country – could see beyond the ‘adult’ boundaries of difference and exclusion. Play and fear cannot live together.

4. Play allows for the imagination of new possibilities. It instills hope.

For the children whose lives it touched, the circus was a moment of sparkling colour in a gray, dark and fading world. Children who had lost all hope would often tell the clowns the dreams that they had for their life.

Playfulness disturbs the status quo and provokes a response. Just as the response to violence is often further violence – the response to playfulness is often a life transformed by hope.

Have you ever met a playful person who made your day brighter, or gave your life a new perspective?

Don’t Shoot the Clowns: Taking a Circus to the Children of Iraq is available from and

You can read Jo’s blog, Circus2Iraq, here.

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