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Childlike Playfulness

Philip Gaydon

Activities to help participants become more open-minded, wondrous, and playful.

Panda Ant 2

“Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas – only I don’t exactly know what they are!”1


I have been studying what it means to be a ‘childlike’ learner for seven years now and I have taught philosophy and run playful learning workshops with every age group. Unsurprisingly, I have found that pre-teen children regularly experience the world in a more playful and wondrous fashion than either teenagers or adults.

The play of teenagers is often plentiful and delightfully (or frustratingly) dark and anarchic. They regularly attempt to subvert the way society works, challenge ingrained understandings of where life’s meaning comes from, and test the boundaries of their relationships with established forms of authority such as religion, parents, and education. On the other hand, their ability to be playful and revel in the fun or satisfaction of play becomes heavily constricted by hormones, peer-pressure, and developing senses of skepticism and pragmatism.

Adults, generally, have found their chosen route to knowledge and understanding and sworn exploratory allegiances to disciplines, political systems, or philosophies. They have accrued a massive bank of experience from which to make fairly accurate predictions, and the more accurate they are the more secure in their pre-existing knowledge and closed-off to new avenues of exploration they become. As such, whilst these things do not stop the typical adult from playing, they do form the rigid rules of the social and professional games they would like to play and this game-mentality, as noted in the introduction to this playbox, often precludes the fluid, questioning spirit of playfulness. Additionally, they have reputations to maintain and serious responsibilities to attend to which necessitate that the play they do engage with be justified as a legitimate ‘adult’ activity.

Pre-teens, however, are regularly surprised by an unfamiliar world; enraptured by radical and playful explanations as to how the world works and why things are they way they are; can whole-heartedly make-believe; challenge and question even the most set ideas; and their brand of skepticism and social self-consciousness does not yet have the teenage edge to it which begins to cut play away from playfulness. Childlike play in this sense tends towards limitless variations on rules and scenarios with an unbounded freedom of expression.

Keep in mind: Childlike is different to childish. The latter is a regressive state which often brings with it unhelpful or feigned naivete, obviously disproportionate reactions, silliness, and so on. This is not the place to debate the necessary and sufficient conditions that differentiate the childlike and the childish, but if you take a moment now to reflect on the difference between the two concepts then your intuitions will most likely keep you on track when it comes to a teaching and learning environment.

Attempting to engage with childlike playfulness as an adult can be a tricky thing. It involves increasing our capacity for wonder, allowing curiosity to lead us without fear of judgement, being open to new avenues of knowledge and insight, being aware of and challenging the restrictions we have (unknowingly) placed on ourselves, and to ask questions of even the most established rules and ideas without the desire to necessarily remove them.

Have a think: Before going on, does anything immediately spring to mind that could help bring about any of these things? Do the words 'childlike', 'wonder', 'curiosity', 'freedom', or 'challenging' prompt thoughts of any learning situations you have been in? Jot them down. Could you use them to develop a session, workshop, or task?

Many of the tasks in this playbox will help with establishing the conditions for childlike playfulness. For example, almost all of them tend towards the development of spaces of safety and permission, and tools such as One Word Walk, Re-present, and The Unexpected Classroom reinvest what has become familiar with new chances for meaning and exploration. And, as discussed in Fleas in a Jar, interdisciplinary spaces can stimulate our interest and engagement with topics we may have long since left behind or ruled out. The below are a couple more ideas.


What is it?

Based upon Guilford’s alternative uses task, which is designed to test creativity and divergent thinking, and those childhood moments when we turned a cardboard box into a spaceship or a stick into a microphone, this warm-up activity can be used to stimulate playfulness and prompts participants to engage with the idea that an object has hidden potential.

  • Stand everyone in a circle.
  • Introduce an object to the group (this can be anything).
  • Tell them that as soon as they get the object they must act as if the object is something other than what it is. For example, an umbrella might become a walking stick, a sword, a telescope, a horse, and on, and on. Then hand it on.
  • The only rule is that they must try to not repeat anything that has gone before.
  • Keep going. Even if students can’t think of anything they must hand it on to the next person and the activity continues.
  • Avoid the temptation to make this competitive by having people be ‘out’ if they can’t think of anything or repeat an idea. One of the points of the activity is for participants to see that even if they think they’ve run out of ideas they’ll be able to think of something if they just keep going, trying ideas, and find inspiration from others in the group.


For many of us, storytime was a time of imaginative activity, escape, and wonder. It was also a time for asking questions and exploring rules. But weren’t they scared? Why did they do that? What’s going to happen next? Recreating this can be a very powerful tool for creating a space for prompting childlike thinking and learning.

So, tell a story!

To create the right atmosphere try to dramatise your reading. If you can tell a story from memory then that's even better. This may take some practice but there are a lot of helpful resources available and it is well worth it.2 Also, think about setting. Collect cushions, rugs, cuddly toys, or anything else will make sure that people are comfortable sat on the floor and adds to the sense of being back in the classroom or laying back at bedtime to be read a story. If all else fails, and your story is quite short, just sitting on the floor is fine but be aware that being uncomfortable could break the spell.

After the reading follow up with some course-relevant questions or an activity to anchor participants back to the content of the session. Remember, we’re going for childlike, not childish. For example, when running sessions on how to use Prezi I use Jeanne Willis’ Tadpole’s Promise to foster a childlike atmosphere conducive to the imaginative and creative way of thinking I want participants to engage with, but I immediately bounce into the thoughtful task of analysing the narrative of the tale. Another example, in the module Applied Imagination I use Dr Seuss’ Oh, the Thinks you can Think! and have students draw something that they’ve never heard of before. Those drawings are then used in their follow-up theory building task so their childlike creations immediately become part of a thoughtful activity.


1 Image: ‘Panda Ant’, Chris Lukhaup:
Text: Carroll, Lewis. 1965 (1871). Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, illus. John Tenniel, New York, Airmont: 142

2 My personal favourite is Peter Worley’s Once Upon an If which not only has some good tips and techniques, but has a good bibliography for further reading, includes philosophical stories and advice as to following up with probing questions, as well as pointers as to how to scaffold a session.