Mulla Nasruddin is a fictional character in the folklore of the Muslim world from the Balkans to China, and a hero of numerous stories. Like this one, on a day when he was invited to deliver a sermon to the faithful. Mulla Nasruddin steps into the pulpit, the first thing out of his mouth is, “Do you know what I’m going to say?” The response is NO and at that, he announces, “I have no desire to speak to people who don’t even know what I will be talking about!” and he leaves. It confuses and embarrasses everyone. 

But maybe they have simply misunderstood…. 

So, they call him back for the following Sunday, and again, immediately as Mulla Nasruddin steps into the pulpit, he asks the people if they know what he is going to say. This time they reply YES. “Well,” he says, “since you already know what I’m going to say, I won’t waste any more of your time!” and he leaves. 

The people are completely flummoxed by now. They decide to try one more time and invite the Mulla to speak the following week. Upon entering the pulpit, he asks the same question as before—“Do you know what I am going to say?”—but it is said, “forewarned is forearmed,” and so half of the congregation answers YES while the other half replies NO. Unfazed, Nasruddin says, “Let the half who know what I am going to say tell it to the other half who don’t,” and he leaves.

And that’s the story. And I can’t say I wasn’t tempted to follow Nasruddin’s lead with you, and let the chips fall where they may. That would be playful, right? In a sermon about the wisdom of playfulness? 

But it would perhaps be a very short sermon. Frankly, I’m not sure myself what Islam’s holy fool was trying to get at, beyond doing anything he can to avoid having to write a sermon…. 

And maybe this too: that he’s playing by a different set of rules than his hearers. Everyone else sees a duck, but he sees a rabbit. Everyone else sees a goblet, but he sees the two faces. He’s coming at things from very different angle.

And that IS definitely part of what makes up the wisdom of play. 

Listen to this wonderful story that comes from Boston College psychology researcher Dr. Peter Gray. It puts a smile on my face every time. He writes, “A few years ago I had an experience that helped me see the difference between play and PLAY. I was invited by two ten-year-old girls, whom I knew well, to play a game of Scrabble. I’ve played a fair amount of Scrabble in my life and am not bad at it. […] The two girls, in contrast, were complete novices. So, I saw this as an opportunity to teach; I would teach them the rules and some of the strategy of Scrabble. I would be their Scrabble mentor!

But, as it turned out, they taught me something way more important than Scrabble. They loved the basic situation—taking turns at putting down letters in an organized way on the board, with sets of letters interlocking with other sets in crossword fashion, making interesting designs. But they had no interest at all in keeping score, and the idea of limiting themselves to real, actual words—words that can be found in the dictionary—bored them. They very quickly and effortlessly, with no overt discussion at all, and despite my initial protests, developed their own rules and strategy.”

Dr. Gray continues: “Their unstated but obvious goal, on each turn, was to put down the longest, funniest nonsense word that they could, using as many letters as possible from their rack combined with at least one letter on the board. It had to follow the rules of English phonology (or, as they would have put it, it had to sound like it could be a word), but it could not be an actual word. The object was not to score points but to make each other laugh, and laugh they did! They laughed like only two high-spirited ten-year-old girls who have long been best friends can laugh. Sometimes one would ‘challenge’ the other’s ‘word,’ asking for a definition, and the other would offer an hysterical definition that somehow seemed to fit with the way the ‘word’ sounded; and then they would laugh even harder.”  

“[As] I pulled back and watched them and began to laugh along with them, [I realized that] my way of playing was something like what we usually call work. Their way of playing was PLAY. I realized, too, that I used to play like that, as a child. What had happened to me in the interim?”

That’s the story from Dr. Peter Gray. Note how he thought he was going to teach the girls a thing or two, but ultimately they pulled a Mulla Nasruddin on him, and in the end he was left wondering what the heck had happened to him in his life, why he could no longer play like THAT … because play like THAT is what aliveness looks like…

Play like THAT is full of all good things…

As a wise person once said, “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” 

And already we are deep into our subject. Part of it has to do with what makes play PLAY—five factors—each of which the story illustrates. One factor is that the activity is freely entered into. For the two girls playing Scrabble, there’s absolutely no feeling of being pushed into something against their will, and no sense that it’s impossible to quit. If a person feels coerced or forced, it’s not freedom and therefore, it’s not playful. 

As for the second thing that makes play PLAY, think for a moment about how the girls are self-determining. They are free agents and determine their own rules and strategy—even in the face of Dr. Gray’s protests. Dr. Gray thinks he knows best (just like all the people in our lives who think they know what’s best) but it can’t be playful for those girls if they are feeling micromanaged down to the details, and it’s the same for us. 

Which takes us immediately to the third factor in all playfulness: imagination. Scrabble, in conventional reality, aims at real, actual words; but the girls aim for nonsense words which need to at least sound real and which are as long and silly as possible. They even invent definitions to fit the way the fake words sound. In the hands of imagination, everything can be different than what it is, or more than what it is. 

Imagination can even go so far as to find windows where there seemed to be only walls. It’s writer Jules Verne in 1870, in his book 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, fantasizing about electric submarines—and eventually science was able to make that fantasy come true. Maybe this is why Einstein once said, in his 1933 book entitled Cosmic Religion and Other Opinions and Aphorisms, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” 

Albert Einstein really said that. And, at least as I read it, he is suggesting that the importance of imagination is about how it is practically useful. How the usefulness is tremendous. But the irony here is that the emphasis on usefulness actually violates the fourth factor of genuine play which we are now moving on to: that PLAY is primarily for the sake of fun and not for any other further purpose. Our Scrabble-playing girls are not endeavoring to create new words and thereby improve the English language. They just want to make each other giggle. They just want to make each other guffaw. They just want to make each other laugh so hard that whatever it is they’re drinking spurts out of their nostrils. That’s the main thing in anything qualifying as genuine play. Yes, there can be practical positive side-effects. But that’s not principally why you do it. 

Finally, there is a fifth factor in all genuine playfulness: you are completely absorbed. Intensely and utterly: you are focused on what’s happening. You are in the flow. You are in the sweet spot. Above all you are not distressed, you are not afraid of failure, you are not distracted by anything else. The path to learning how might take you through the valley of the shadow of awkwardness, or appearing foolish, but you are not afraid. You give yourself to the process, no matter how messy. 

All five of these things: this is what makes play PLAY. Activity that is freely-entered, it’s self-determining, it’s full of imagination, it’s valuable in itself, and it’s characterized by a mindset of utter absorption. 

Play sounds pretty sweet, right? 

What’s amazing is how evolution—which is ruthless in its practicality—seems to love playfulness. There is a reason why the puzzle game on my smartphone called Candy Crush Saga [who are my Candy Crush Saga addicts in the room? you know who you are] has inspired players to spend $1.33 billion dollars on in-app purchases. That was just in the year 2014 alone. Real dollars were used to purchase virtual and insubstantial things like extra lives, extra moves, color bombs, lollipop hammers, and gold bars. There’s a reason for this. And it’s not personal depravity, or immaturity, or something else bad. 

It’s because play develops your mind and keeps it sharp. 

It’s because play also provides safe outlets for releasing aggressive impulses. Who hasn’t witnessed a generous, sweet friend at the game board turn into some competitive cut-throat? But that’s ok. That becomes part of the fun. Play ends, and they are back to their usual sweetness…

More generally, play teaches kids how to regulate fear and anger, especially the riskier kinds, as in: climbing heights, going fast, chasing and being chased, wrestling, wandering and getting lost. When such riskier kinds of play are made unavailable, emotional disorders in children actually increase. Did you know that? That to helicopter children and put bubble-wrap around them is to take away opportunities they truly need for their healthy growth?

There are just so many reasons why play is not a luxury, but a necessity.

It’s because play teaches people how to take turns, which is nothing less than the basis of civilization. 

It’s because play gives people the opportunity to connect and socialize—this is why video games never killed off the more traditional board games which, when you think about it, have the quality of a campfire about them, around which people gather and become friends. 

It’s because play energizes the imagination and can open doors to new insights and connections. Let’s take a moment with this one in particular. There’s a fascinating finding in developmental psychology worth looking into. So: consider the following argument: 

All cats bark

Muffins is a cat

Does Muffins bark?

I know. Cats don’t bark in the real world like dogs do. But if you let strict logic dictate, you must conclude that Muffins barks. Do you see that? 

Now, classic psychological theory says that children under 10 or 11 don’t know how to let logic dictate. Their minds aren’t old enough to “get” logic. And, as it turns out, when British researchers put syllogisms like this before young children—and did so in a serious, sober tone of voice—yup, the kids couldn’t solve them. Cats don’t bark, they meow! the kids would insist, and this got in the way of their being able to allow logic to do its work. 

But now listen to this. When those British researchers presented the same logic problems in a playful tone of voice, using words that made it clear that they were talking about a pretend world, children as young as 4 years old solved the logic problems easily. Even 2-year-olds solved them! This is completely contrary to what classic psychological theory predicts!

Isn’t that amazing? How everything changes when we shift from a serious tone of voice to a playful tone of voice? 

For this reason and for all the other reasons I’ve mentioned: evolution—which is ruthless in its practicality—loves playfulness.

Nevertheless, just like Dr. Gray in the Scrabble story, we might find ourselves remembering how we used to play like the two girls played—how we used to be able to get into a Nasruddin space—but no longer. Something happened to us over the course of our lives. Playfulness got knocked out of us. 

We’re no longer in contact with our playful nature. 

How? Why? 

Well, think about the sound of fun. The sound of fun is LOUD. And when you are holding pain, you don’t want to hear anything LOUD. “Children,” I was constantly told growing up, “should be seen but not heard.” But it’s not really about kids. It’s about adults with trauma hangovers and they can’t bear fun happening around them and so they kill it wherever they find it. 

It’s not hard, after all, to explain how our lives have gone contrary to nature. Adult pain, adult fear. Evolution has designed children to know innately the difference between real and pretend, and so one day you catch your son playing cops and robbers with a toy gun and he is shooting that gun for all it’s worth and it scares you to death because you KNOW all about gun violence and (as a parent) you KNOW that your kid’s behaviors right now might be an indication of an enduring trait (as opposed to just a phase). Which one it is—well, that you DON’T know. So, you worry. 

You are a parent. That’s what parents do. 

Our lives go contrary to nature. But it’s not just about parents and children. 

If playfulness involves freedom to enter into and to leave, think of all the ways in which you might be tied to a position you can’t afford to leave, or to a marriage, or to something else. Recently someone told me about a job they were tied to with “golden shackles.” Good money but it’s soul killing. 


If playfulness involves the ability of choosing exactly how you will play, think of all the ways in which people of all ages are micromanaged—at school, at work, at home. For example, in some schools, children come home every day with a color that indicates what their behavior has been like that day. No slack at all. Every day you are judged. Parents, every day, have to deal with it. 


If playfulness involves doing something just for fun, think of all the messages we receive about getting on track, growing up, getting a life. Don’t get that degree in philosophy! Don’t get that degree in studio art! What are you thinking? How are you going to make any money with a degree like that? 


If playfulness involves full absorption in what you are doing without any distress or pressure, just watch the evening news and allow the pain of the world to pour in and that will make you feel plenty distracted and plenty distressed. 


If playfulness involves imagination, just think of all the ways in which the world wants us to be serious and literalistic. All the literalism and conservatism out there that makes religion, for example, shallow and uncreative and violent. 


If we could just flip the joylessness script for a moment….

If we could just channel the Mulla Nasruddin even a little bit. 

Muslims say, “Take one step towards God and God takes seven steps towards you.” “Walk to God and God comes running.” If playfulness is anything, it is God energy stirring in us! 

Would you like to take that one step? Would you like to start walking? 

Everything changes when we shift from a serious tone of voice to a playful tone of voice…. 

Can we make that shift in our lives more often? 

But oh! the joylessness script runs so deep though. Just taking that one step, just starting to walk, can feel so hard….

The other day I was in Marshall’s looking for even more silly socks to wear on a Sunday morning, because I want to be playful with you, and there were kids playing chase, and they were laughing and carrying on and it was the sound of fun (LOUD!) and I just wanted them to SHUT UP, it had been a long day, I was upset about things, and there I was—being contrary to the nature that surges within me and within you and wants playfulness, wants us to be alive and vital, wants us to feel charged up with the electrical charge of the soul. 

Did I think I could solve things by being a grinch? I think I did.

Why do I keep thinking that? Again and again, the playful approach is the powerful one. It releases 4-year-olds (never mind 10 or 11 year olds) to solve logic problems supposedly impossible for them to solve. It motivates people to climb stairs and be healthier rather than to take the easier way via the escalator (as we saw in the video from earlier). 

What other kinds of problem solving might the playful approach make possible?

That holy fool of Muslim culture: the Mulla Nasruddin:

We might be amazed by what happens next 

were we to channel even a little bit of his playful energy 

into our lives.  

Maybe it’s the playful approach that could help each of us solve something that is burdening us these days.