25 | Playful Mischief and Gentle Rebellion (With Emma Bearman)

How can we nurture environments and habits for playful mischief and gentle rebellion in our lives, relationships, and communities?

In this episode of The Gentle Rebel Podcast, I chat with Emma Bearman, the founder of Playful Anywhere, whose mission is to catalyse creativity, inventiveness and playfulness at home, work, and on our travels.

A container ship at sunset. Playful mischief and gentle rebellion.

The Transformative Power of Playfulness in a Serious World

The benefits of play are not easily measurable. The roots go deep, and they can transform our lives, our communities, and the world over time.

Experiences are often carefully crafted so that they are consumed or performed rather than created by participants. Do we feel like we belong in the places we live? In a world oriented towards consumption, participation in making, creating, and exploring ourselves and the world can be an act of gentle rebellion.

Play Through Boredom, Limitations, and Our Own Resourcefulness

Have you ever felt creatively blocked by the paradox of choice? Can too much time and too many resource options inhibit creativity?

Emma and I discussed the potential of small places and how play is like digging deep into nothing and coming up with treasure.

The Joy Of Seeing Others Have Fun

Emma talks about building environments and nurturing conditions for meaningful things to grow. She doesn’t need to be in the centre and loves standing by and watching people play in spaces she has helped create.

There is something delightful about seeing something you’ve facilitated bring joy to people engaging with it.

Mischievous Curiosity

Playful mischief can include combining objects and ideas in unusual places and ways (like turning shipping containers into Playboxes).

Where are the gaps waiting for us to bring weird things together?

Playfulness is disarming. Like humour, it is a way to question the status quo without creating defensiveness in others.

You can achieve aims and create radical change in playful, friendly, cheeky ways without being antagonistic and “poking bears” with sticks.

It provides space to address serious issues without dividing and backing people into positions where they won’t listen or engage with others.

Playfulness is a soothing balm that gives us another way to hold the false binaries and positions we are often expected to adopt. It reminds us of all the common ground and the public space we can meet, grow, and engage with each other at the level of being.

Play is an empowering spirit that allows organic change to occur. It doesn’t require force or performance.

Connecting Through Our Universal Experiences

The question, “what was it like for you growing up?” is another disarming way to connect with people.

We all have a story and formative reasons for becoming who we are. This connection to childhood may have positive or negative memories, but they underpin this story and provide a pathway to empathy and compassion.

Play can lead to self-compassion. Allowing us to get alongside our inner child and give them what they needed but didn’t have. And we can reconnect with what gave them joy.

Childlike Wonder and Daftness

As we grow up, we don’t need to lose our childlike wonder and daftness. On the contrary, it’s an essential aspect of our humanity.

It is liberating and constructive to say, “I don’t know the answer; let’s explore and experiment!” Rather than believing that we need to know (or pretend to know) all the answers. This is important for our well-being and is transformative as we model it for others to observe. It’s safe, accepting, and freeing.

The Space Between Here and There (or here)

Play and adventure aren’t about the answer/solution/destination. They are the substance of the story. The glue that binds everything together. We can’t predict, control, or prescribe it. Things unfold as things unfold.

Ambiguity can be threatening. We want a list of tasks, up-and-to-the-right progress, and the sense that we’re “getting there”. But playfulness is a beautifully gooey timeless moment that must be explored without pressure to realise its potential.

Learning to enjoy the “I don’t know yet” space is a great way to make better decisions. It allows dots to connect in their own time. This also helps us slow down and listen to more than just the surface of a situation.

A Gentle Sanctuary in The Middle Of The Noise

Emma describes one project where her team created a quiet, down-low, gentle bubble in a noisy city centre. The energy was like a sanctuary in the middle of chaos.

We talk about Emma’s leadership approach and the power of sitting back and letting things happen. Through her approach, she gently questions the drive towards performative busyness that we engage in to feel and look worthy and valuable.

I wonder if this is one of a leader’s most undervalued roles in a community project. It takes great courage because it can look passive and feel unproductive. But it sets the pace, tone, and permission for safety and calm. It dances with the energy and infuses the environment gently (firm back, soft front).

Play is in the Person, Not The Toy

Play doesn’t have to happen in a playground. It doesn’t require equipment. It often can’t be fully described or understood. Play is a spontaneous explosion of creative energy.

It’s how we hold the world, and it can be found anywhere.

Michael Rosen describes toys as simple physical props that enable and enhance play. It might be a stick, a stone, an empty milk carton, or a shoelace.

In this sense, toys are gateways to secret worlds. They allow us to dream, imagine, and create fantastical landscapes wherever we are.

There is Play Everywhere

Emma and I discussed ways to infuse everyday life with more play. What struck me was the fact that all of them are free. They don’t require us to buy or learn anything new. They are instantly accessible.

Make Stories

Look under the sofa, in your pockets, and around the room.

  • Where are the missing socks?
  • What would the shampoo say about the current political climate?
  • How do the frozen peas feel when they wake up out of their state of deep cryogenic sleep?

Slow Down

  • What are the kids looking at? What is catching their attention?
  • How do things seem different today?
  • What if you changed the route and got slightly lost on the way home?

Choose The Playful Lens

  • When things feel heavy and serious, ask how you might see the situation if you wore your playful glasses.
  • Reconnect with a hobby that you used to get lost in.
  • Ask, “what can I do with this?” as you pick up a piece of paper, open the fridge, or collect all the clutter from the car.
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