Get Back on the Playground!

Copyright 2006 Mike Pniewski

Did you ever wonder how you went from the kid who couldn’t sit still, to the adult who can’t get moving?

I asked myself this recently when I took my 3-year-old daughter to the playground at a fast food restaurant. She loves playgrounds and so do I. At an almost frantic pace, she began to scale every inch of the equipment, and I surveyed the scene around me. What I saw were kids playing and parents either trying to wrangle their kids off the playground, or get their little ones to sit still and finish their food before they hit the playground. None of the children were sitting in a chair watching the action. They were either taking part in it or itching to. Some kids are shy and timid, of course, but the overwhelming instinct of children is to jump in and participate in any way possible, even at the expense of fueling their bodies. They seem to have no fear of looking weird or not fitting in, especially the youngest of them.

So what happened to us adults? When did we become afraid? When did we shut off the kid in us and start to think too much? When did we decide we had to grow up?

One of my favorite professors in college taught directing. An actor himself, he remarked one day that he hoped he’d never grow up, because your childlike instincts are what keep the joy and wonder in your work. That sense of play and make-believe is natural to any good actor and we’d better not lose it, he said. For actors, childishness is a best friend. Growing up is dangerous. It robs us of our freedom and the determination not to miss anything. It makes us fearful and doubtful and insecure. It makes us see new people as strangers instead of potential friends. Most importantly, it keeps us from living to our full potential.

So what happened to us? I believe it was something called expectations — more specifically, other people’s expectations of us. When we’re little, from birth to 3 or 4-years old, our only care in life is to have fun. Our only job is to be lovable and to love. Everything else is just play. What could be better? But then, as we get older, we start to have expectations put on us. We have to make our bed, we have to go to school, we have to finish our homework, wash the car, get a job, etc., etc. Then we get older and have our own families, career, responsibilities and debts. Not to mention the peer pressures that drive us to have the house or the car or the gadgets that make the best impression. Pretty soon our own sense of daring and wonder is lost in what we’re “supposed to be.”

Worrying about what we’re supposed to be suppresses the child in us, who has no doubt that his or her purpose on the planet is to have fun. Who said you couldn’t live your entire life with that beautiful energy of daring and joy? Growing up shouldn’t mean giving up our purest spirit. We shouldn’t allow ourselves to be controlled by our fear of not living up to other people’s expectations.

Of course this doesn’t mean you should ditch your commitments and responsibilities in favor of doing whatever feels good in the moment. What I’m encouraging you to do instead is to make choices that bring you joy and fulfillment. Choose a career that fills your soul as well as your wallet. Love your family and those around you and cherish all the relationships in your life. And remember to live life on your own terms. Live your own truth. When other people’s expectations become the master of the choices you make, you give away the power to determine your own happiness.

A fellow named Gil Bailie once said, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and go do that because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

Make it your mission in life to fully come alive. You and the world will be better for it.