Play as a Contemplative Practice

Today is the first Sunday of the month when we share guest posts from people living and teaching the Contemplative and/or Celtic Christian way around the world. One of the beautiful things about the internet is that people doing amazing things in isolated parts of the world can learn from one another and grow together. We hope this article inspires you to dive a little deeper into what it means to follow in the footsteps of our ancestors while looking forward to what kind of world we will leave for our grandchildren.


My name is Shelly Johnson, and I am a writer and philosophy professor. I teach ethics and a variety of other philosophy classes (including Philosophy of Zombies) at Georgetown College in Georgetown, Kentucky. One of my primary research interests is the philosophy of play. I am the author of the blog Love is Stronger and the books Argument Builder, Discovery of Deduction (co-author) and Everyday Debate. I enjoy hula-hooping, watercolor painting, and writing.

What would you say if I told you that play can be a contemplative practice?

If you are a like a lot of people, you might be skeptical at first. After all, contemplation has the connotation of quiet, serious, and serene thought, while play is often considered to be noisy, light-hearted, and boisterous. These seem like opposite activities.

And in some ways they are. I would suggest, however, that there are certain playful activities or attitudes that can be a contemplative practice. And in fact, play might be the first contemplative practice we learn in life. To understand this better, it is helpful to explore what contemplative practices are and what play is to better understand their connection.

What are Contemplative Practices?

Contemplative practices quiet our mind; help us be present with our self; and nurture our spirituality so that we may become more compassionate, creative, wise, and loving versions of us.

The spiritual part of us is that part where our mind, body, emotions, and sociability intersect and where seeds of goodness, like love, creativity, compassion, and wisdom reside inside of us waiting to be developed. The spiritual part of us contains the roadmap to our highest self.

The ancient Asian philosopher Mengzi reminds us that all human beings have seeds of goodness that can be cultivated through attention and practice:

“There is that in our nature which is spontaneously part of us and can become good. The fact that we can become bad is not a defect in our natural endowment. All men possess a sense of commiseration; all men possess a sense of shame; all men possess a sense of respect; all men possess a sense of right and wrong. The sense of commiseration is the seed of humanity; the sense of shame is the seed of righteousness; the sense of respect is the seed of ritual; the sense of right and wrong is the seed of wisdom.” (Mengzi.6A.6. Robert Eno, trans.)

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Contemplative practices are for everyone, religious or not, because they nurture our seeds of goodness. And for people who belong to a specific religion, contemplative practices also help them connect with God.

Some examples of contemplative practices are meditation, yoga, prayer, visualization, labyrinth walking, vigils, pilgrimages, journaling, sacred dance, meditative strolls, and many others. Activities like this, when done with mindfulness and an open heart, allow us to explore, enrich, and deepen different aspects of our spirituality.

By mindfulness, I mean the intention to stay present with our self during our spiritual practice. By open heart, I mean the desire to learn from the practice. It is, after all, difficult to be nurtured or transformed by a spiritual practice if we are not present with and willing to learn from it.

There is an infinite quality about our spirituality. There is no timeline or deadline for nurturing the spiritual side of us, although the sooner we start, the sooner we benefit from such practices. And we can develop our spirituality continually. As Paul writes in the letter to the Galatians, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness; against such things there is no law [italics mine]” (Galatians 5:22-23, NASB).

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What is Play?

Play can be defined in different ways, but I like to define it as a “for-itself activity (an activity done for its own sake) focused on overcoming an obstacle, motivated by curiosity, openness, and optimism.”

We often think of play as activities younger children do such as building with Legos, hula-hooping, hop- scotch, swinging, jumping rope, coloring, playing tag, playing dress up, and drawing.

When children play, they get caught up in their activity, lost in the moment. They play for the sake of playing, not for some outcome like earning a salary or a grade or becoming famous. When they play, children are interested in solving a problem or overcoming an obstacle, whether that problem is building something with Legos, learning a hula-hooping trick, tagging playmates, succeeding at hop-scotch, or what-have-you.

In overcoming an obstacle or solving a problem, the for-itself-ness of play allows children to approach their activity with curiosity, openness, and optimism. There is no timeline in play, and there is no right way to play, other than continuing to play.

In his book Finite and Infinite Games, writer and professor James P. Carse distinguishes between finite and infinite games. Finite games are games played for the purpose of winning. Infinite Games are games played for the sake of playing and their goal is to keep playing. So, the games I am speaking of here are infinite games, which are games that younger children, who care much less about winning than about playing, are especially known for.

Because play is focused on continuing to play, it encourages openness—what do I want to play in this time and space?; curiosity—how can I play more and better?; optimism—I can play in so many ways!

Play is an activity we engage with in a moment in time, but the willingness to play the game can go on infinitely, and it is this infinite, open-ended nature of play—a space with no timetable or deadline—that opens us up to our self, each other, and the world.

Timetables and deadlines often shut down parts of us, our life, or our relationships. “There’s no time for that!” is a common refrain in the world of deadlines and timetables. But in the world of play, there is all the time in the world, and so it becomes the world of infinite exploration and understanding.

This is one of the many reasons why play is essential to the physical, mental, social, and emotional development of children.

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The Connection Between Contemplative Practices and Play

If we stop to consider the matter, we will realize that play has much in common with contemplative practice.

Both play and contemplative practice invite us to be present with our self, the moment we are in, and the other people present.

Both play and contemplative practice invite us to openness, curiosity, and a sense of optimism or hope.

Both play and contemplative practice invite us to develop the spiritual part of us—that part where our mind, body, and spirit intersect.

But Why Link the Two?

It’s one thing to show that two things like play and contemplative practice share similarities. It’s another thing to suggest that these similarities are somehow meaningful. And that is what I wish to show.

For many people, contemplative practices feel odd, strange, and foreign. We aren’t sure what they are for, how they work, or how we are supposed to do them. As one of my students once asked while we were discussing meditation during an Asian philosophy class, “What is the point of meditation? I don’t get it.”

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And maybe that is a question many of us have when it comes to contemplative practices, “What’s the point?”

But although many of us are unfamiliar with contemplative practices, most of us are intimately familiar with play. We may still play ourselves; or we remember what it felt like to play; or we delight in watching young children or young animals play. (Yes, animals play, too!)

We know what it was like to feel free at play and the joy and spontaneity that came with it—feelings that brought out our best nature and nurtured our potential. And that is the purpose of contemplative practices as well. And in fact, perhaps we can consider play as the first contemplative practice we ever learn. (In his renowned book Homo Ludens, historian John Huizinga draws a strong connection between play and the sacred.)

And when we find ourselves in need of spiritual nourishment, and contemplative practices seem too confusing or strange to us, it is okay to return to play as a contemplative practice. The Sufi mystics, after all, used twirling and spinning to connect with the Divine!

Here are four ways you might use play as a contemplative practice:

One: Go for a walk in the woods or around trees and let yourself be fully present in the walk. Pay attention to what you see, what you hear, and how the walk feels. Find something beautiful or exciting on your walk and express gratitude for it in whatever you like, just to the world in general or to the Divine.

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I saw a turtle on a walk the other day!

Two: Practice a flow activity like juggling, yoga, hula hooping, or dancing. At the beginning of your practice, dedicate to something or someone—like peace, lovingkindness, or the healing of someone’s suffering or your own healing. During your practice do your best to stay in the moment and to focus on the activity and your breathing. The more you do this, the more you are likely to feel a sense of peace, joy, and freedom. At the end of your practice, send these good feelings to the thing or person to which you dedicated your practice. This can be a form of lovingkindness meditation.

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Three: Practice play with a creative project like coloring, painting, knitting, or crocheting. Go through the same steps as you did in suggestion #2 above. Dedicate your creative practice to someone or something. During your project, do your best to stay in the moment and to focus on the activity and your breathing. At the end of your practice, send good feelings of peace, joy, and freedom to the thing or person to which you dedicated your practice.

Four: Make a nature mandala or labyrinth as both a creative expression and an opportunity to connect with your Higher Self or the Divine. You can read about this here and here.

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Any play activity you do can become a contemplative practice when you practice it with awareness and presence and with the intention of cultivating gratitude, peace, freedom, and a connection with the Divine.

During troubled times like the pandemic, and during all stages of our life, we need tools and practices that help us connect with loving and hopeful feelings in our self and the world around us. Contemplative practices help us do that, but when they feel too strange or confusing to us, we can always start with our first contemplative practice: play.


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