Play, Imagination, and Creative Work

By Luke Bobo

August 22, 2023

Article, De Pree Journal, Marketplace Leaders, Rest

Walter, a seminarian, had just finished preaching his senior sermon in chapel—a hallowed, traditional, and ornate space governed by the spoken, and often unspoken, rules of propriety and decorum. As his proud wife, and their two children, a boy, and a girl, both toddlers, approached their dad, spontaneously, his children debuted unscripted playful behavior—leaping, twirling, skipping, dancing, and laughing. In their dad’s presence, and without prompting and oblivious to these chapel rules, they engaged in unchoreographed and gleeful play. Rather than being governed by these chapel rules, they instead were governed by their childhood innocence and the loving and approving presence of their dad. They were secure in their dad’s presence. As children of God, our Father, we have the freedom to play like a child. We have the liberty to visit our childhood innocence and play.

Two Reasons Adults Don’t Play

The American Heritage Dictionary, fifth edition, defines play as “to occupy oneself in an activity for amusement or recreation,” as in children playing with toys. Play seems like a harmless and enjoyable thing to do. However, why do adults have an aversion to play? As workers in a capitalist society—which requires a ruthless grind, the appearance of being in control, managing others’ impressions of us, and a competitive posture—I believe we do not play because we have lost the joy of simply playing for enjoyment. We have a distorted vision of play, as Kyung Hyun Kim notes, because “far too much emphasis has been placed on the binary outcomes of either winning or losing” (Kyung Hyun Kim, Child’s Play, Winter 2022).

Play means shedding our competitive corporate American image. Play requires self-deprecating behavior in public, and that is too risky for many adults. Adults resist playing because to do so means suspending criticism of oneself. However, security in our identity in Christ gives us freedom to play as God’s children and to suspend our adult corporate American inhibitions, like maintaining an air of professionalism. Yet this is a freedom we often do not exercise, perhaps because we are not secure in Christ.

Another reason we have an aversion to plays is because, perhaps, we are not convinced of our Father’s unwavering love. If we did, we would not care about how we looked as we played; we would be willing to put our guard down, look silly, and be vulnerable. If we knew how much we are loved, we would not be so obsessed with our brand or image, as the Skin Horse explains to the Rabbit in Margery Williams’s classic childhood story, “The Velveteen Rabbit.”

In this imaginary world of talking stuffed animals, the Rabbit asked the Skin Horse one day,

“What is Real?” “Real isn’t how you are made,” said, the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time.  That’s why it doesn’t happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

Notice where the Skin Horse locates our security so that some things don’t matter at all—when we know that we have been loved for a long, long time. We need not worry about our image or being ‘carefully kept’ when we play because God has loved us for a long, long, long time. “Yes, Jesus loves me, for the Bible tells me so”—those who believe, and most importantly appropriate, these true and liberating lyrics will not mind trading a professional look for a disheveled one, risk embarrassment, and surrender any notions of having it all together. When we know we are deeply loved by God, we ‘get loose’ and we don’t mind engaging in self-deprecating behavior like child’s play.

Why Should We Play?

When I took a writing class, our instructor said, “If you get stuck writing, take a leisurely walk.” My instructor was encouraging us to do something enjoyable; she was instructing us to play. Why? It is through play, and pretending, that “we experiment with ideas, we build castles, not with sand, but in the air; we can retain or create images in the mind’s eye, we can have imaginary conversations. We can invent mock-ups and then refine them. These ideas which we play with seldom turn out in real life quite like they are in our mind’s eye, where they have a first-time ever quality about them” (Dorothy Davidson, Playing and The Growth of Imagination). Dorothy Davidson seems to be saying that play moves our imaginations from dormant to active. In other words, play engages the ability of the mind to form an image, to pretend, and to fantasize.

This stirring of our imagination is a precursor and process necessary for work. Our work or our creative acts is an incarnation of our imaginary ideas; our creative acts give our imaginary ideas an outer or concrete form. I find that play, like leisurely walks, helps me with my work as a writer and as a speaker. Conventional wisdom says, “Work then play.” However, maybe my former business mathematics student had it right when he said, “I play then I work.” Adulting includes work and play. Maybe this is why some colleagues work out before doing their daily work. Regardless of the order, as God’s beloved children we are called to be diligent in our work like the ant (Proverbs 6:6-9) and frolic exuberantly like the Levithan (Psalm 104:26).

Sometimes our imaginary ideas are left for others to bring them to life as in the case of Chester Gould, the creator of the comic strip featuring Dick Tracy which debuted in October 1931. Gould imagined Tracy, a tough and intelligent police detective with a ‘smart’ wristwatch used for two-way radio communication with the police headquarters. Today, that imaginary idea has been brought to life as Apple’s watch.

Sometimes our childhood imaginations give birth to our future vocations. My good friend, Andrew Williams, grew up in Junction City, Kansas—also known as “Junk City” to some in the Sunflower state.  As a family with limited means, Andrew grew up playing with blocks and bricks. This, along with his fascination with the TV show Lost in Space, which featured an autonomous robot, eventually guided him to design box-shaped robots as an electrical engineer. Speaking of his impoverished childhood, Williams writes, “Not having that many toys to play with as a young child probably spurred my imagination even more” (Andrew Williams, Out of the Box: Building Robots, Transforming Lives). Necessity is not only the mother of invention, but necessity or scarcity can be like a booster shot for the imagination and can lead to new creations. For example, known as the “poor man’s pudding,” bread pudding, which originated in the 11th century, was created because of a scarcity of food at the time.

Play Aids Imagineering

I remember participating in a conference in which I had to give a five-minute TED-like talk without notes. The title of my talk was, “Human Imagination Serves Human Flourishing.” One of my co-presenters, a retired elementary teacher, used the word “imagineer.” defines “imagineer” as “a person who is skilled in implementing creative ideas into practical form.” Historians credit Alcoa with the origins of the term, but the folks at Disney have made it famous.

Play bolsters our imagineering skills. The deep, constant love of our Father means we are secure in him, and this gives us the freedom to play. When we know that we are deeply loved by God, our Father, we will clothe ourselves in childlike innocence, and get lost in play, pretending, and daydreaming, and I believe this will lead to imagineering and ultimately birth creative work acts.

Banner image by J. Balla on Unsplash

Luke Bobo


Luke Bobo is the director of bioethics and an associate professor at Kansas City University. He also co-owns Pursuing the Greater Good, a consulting firm through which he teaches, speaks, and writes. Previousl...

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