From Mindfulness to Playfulness

Illustration: Studio Fee Overbeeke

Playing is our natural way of learning

In the famous book H​omo Ludens ​(1938), the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga describes that besides thinkers above all people are players. Playing is our natural way of learning. In this way we explore the rules of our environment and learn to deal with concepts such as gravity and adaptability.

As we get older and our world grows bigger, we start to play less and live more on our autopilot. This is not surprising, because now, in the year 2020, we have to process about 30,000 impulses a day. Fortunately, there is ‘mindfulness’, with which you can stop the impulses and the automatic pilot.

Mindfulness is no longer just for the weak or woolly. Since 25% of the students experience burnout complaints and work-related stress is occupational disease number one, the mindfulness market has grown substantially. There are many apps, books and trainings. Employers offer these to their employees and health insurers stimulate usage.

But why do so many people turn the autopilot back on after a moment of mindfulness? Have we not become conscious enough to make our world more manageable and to enter it naturally in a playful way? No longer burned out, but with the childlike energy with which you play a game?

As a burnout experience expert, playfulness explorer, founder of the ​School for Ninja ​and mother of a playing baby,​ in this article I analyze three main differences between ​mindfulness ​and ​playfulness​. With that I explore whether playfulness can be the missing piece of the puzzle in getting a grip on stress.

How I became a Ninja

It has now been seven years since I started researching playfulness. It was initiated by a personal experience. At the age of 28, during my burnout, I was looking for a career that would revive my energy. On a job I applied for, in which I had put a lot of energy, a thousand responses were received. I was not invited for the first round. At that moment I realised I was in competition and because I was burned-out, I couldn’t possibly win.

Ambitious and strategic as I was, I figured there might be one opportunity that many of my competitors wouldn’t think of. To get my dream job, I would swim in a different direction than the school. Into unknown waters. I quit applying for jobs and started training to become a Ninja! I thought the plan was crazy enough to work. I was going to be powerful and crafty and no one could stop me by saying that ‘my profile did not match the vacancy’​. After two months of Ninja training, my energy was revived. As a bonus I had regained my playfulness.

After reading several books about the power of play, I followed the Master Game Studies.  I got some work experience as an applied game designer and I founded the School for Ninja. I now know that people who are more playful experience less stress. However, I still find it difficult to define “playful”. There are many definitions, ranging from “​like to play”  to “funny and not serious”.

By comparing mindfulness to my knowledge and experience of the meaning of play, I aim to come to a more descriptive definition of playfulness. The definition of mindfulness that I use as a starting point comes from Buddhism:

​”A state of mind that is characterized by the awareness of one’s own physical experiences, feelings and thoughts, without immediately switching to automatic reactions.”

In the rest of this article I analyze the three parts of this definition from a play-perspective to come to a definition of playfulness, which can be found in the conclusion.

1: From ‘awareness’ to ‘imagination’

The definition of mindfulness begins with the phrase “A​ state of mind that is characterized by the awareness … “​ . Awareness indicates that you gain insight into how something really is. People become aware of their own (often negative) reality: “​I experience stress” o​r “​I care too much about what others think of me​”. I perceive myself as a patient and what you give attention to grows, so that became my whole reality: ​Me, the patient. ​

While playing, you transform an existing reality into a different reality, sometimes prescribed by a game manual and sometimes by your own imagination. You don’t think about how something is, but how it can be. You probably did that often and without much effort as a child. The cardboard box is a castle and your father a horse. The beauty is that there is no right or wrong. If you choose to imagine your father into a dragon, you will probably also have fun, just slightly different.

As an adult you can still apply imagination to your daily life. Approach it as a game and take on a different role, then the serious, sometimes melancholic life becomes a bit more light-hearted.

In my game School for Ninja you take on the role of Ninja, part of the “Order of Ninja”. In the story your sensitivity is a great power. People that experience stress suddenly are no longer a risk group, but rather ​”chosen ones​” who can sense where intervening is needed. Themes in the School for Ninja symbolize aspects from everyday life, but the perspective is different. During the game you are not focusing on a problem but taking up a challenge and training a skill.

By imagining, you learn to see new possibilities. When I imagined ​”myself the patient” into “myself the Ninja”, I no longer had to reintegrate and build a career, but had to exercise and become good at infiltration techniques. It turned out to be my long-term solution. After Ninja training, I returned to everyday reality to look for work, with new insights. I had learned that I don’t have to pursue a career and that in reality I was not a patient at all. That which I had assumed was the reality turned out to be imagined as well. Suddenly I saw “imagined reality” all around me. Weekend, money, etiquette: all imaginations. Just like the rules of a game. The realisation that many elements of your life are actually “like a game” can help, because with imagination you can shape that game.

We start our playfulness definition with “​ A state of mind that is characterized by imagination …”.

2: From ‘own’ to ‘culture’

The next phrase of the definition of mindfulness “… ​of one’s own physical experiences, feelings and thoughts …”​ indicates that mindfulness focuses on the individual. Turned inwards, eyes closed, exploring physical sensations. But, can we separate ourselves from the environment? When you open your eyes after a mindfulness meditation, you are back in the same environment as before the mediation. Sure, you have calmed down, but how do you keep yourself from falling back into old habits? And what if 25% of an organisation experiences stress? Is it then still efficient to let everyone work on themselves? Or should we also work on what we have to cope with, the environment, our (organisational) culture?

When we play, we interact with an environment. Children naturally learn how they relate to their environment through their play. The playground helps them investigate physics, role-play teaches them about relationships and thanks to board games children learn about cause-and-effect. Nowadays, in a dynamic time of globalization and digitization, we must constantly adapt to the unknown. Therefor we have to keep playing. According to the philosophy of the book Homo Ludens, or “man the player”, by playing we not only learn to adapt to our culture, we also influence it. By playing consciously we can shape our culture, especially when we join forces with other players.

The School for Ninja lets people explore the relationship with their environment in a playful way, by having different players carry out the same mission and share experiences with each other. A mission is for example: writing down unwritten rules of your environment. The shared result is an overview of all kinds of unwritten rules. Do you recognize these? Or do they surprise you? You will gain insights that you can apply in your own daily life. ​Will you add unwritten rules? Or are you just going to let some go?

So, after your mindfulness moment open your eyes and look around you. Are you the only one who experiences stress, or do you have fellow sufferers? If several people experience stress, you are probably in a poorly balanced system (or game). For example, there are too many rules (​bureaucracy)​ or there is too much freedom (​such as in the office garden)​. Then start to consciously play. Be not only aware of yourself, but also of the influence that your choices have on the whole. You will learn that you are not a victim of the system. When several people play consciously with the system, you can influence it. Together you can turn ‘the performance society​’ into a ‘​co-creative culture’​.

We continue our definition of playfulness with “… ​ in regard to cultural habits and behavioral rules …”.

3: From ‘passive’ to ‘active’

The last phrase of the definition of mindfulness is “.​.. without immediately switching to automatic reactions​”. In other words, you became aware of your own physical experiences, but then do nothing with it. You come to a stop. After a period of running on autopilot, thanks to mindfulness, I too came to a stop. It seemed to be the highest attainable in Buddhism: ​”Nirvana” or “​enlightenment without personal drive and ambition​”. Unfortunately, this didn’t work for me for long. Although standing still can be very valuable to evaluate about whether you are still going in the right direction, I do not believe that people thrive on keep standing still. Naturally we want to move, play and perform.

While “mind” is a noun, “play” is a verb. In play you learn by doing. Not on autopilot, but aware of your choices and the systems in which you move. This is due to the way games are designed. Each game has a degree of structure, for example the edges of the sandbox (little structure) or the Monopoly rules (a lot of structure). The more freedom the player has, the more difficult it can be to get moving. Video games in particular are designed in such a way that the player can easily start moving in a complex world. In the first level the player has few obstacles and little freedom of choice, but in the last level the now skilled player can deal with many obstacles that the game has to offer.

In the School for Ninja, you choose missions across a path of five phases. These missions are similar to health interventions you could get from a therapist, but because the missions are broken down into very small steps, you’re always aware of your progress. You will also receive rewards. Not in the form of points, but in the form of story and in earning ‘playground items’ with which you can continue to train. This way you gradually become aware of complex themes and you train in a way that suits you and your environment.

When being playful in daily life, you find the room for free movement within structures you encounter. Think two steps ahead, make conscious choices, try different strategies until you find one that works well. You are still aware, but you are not holding the awareness between your ears, you are going to do something with it. Where mindfulness leads to standstill, playfulness gets you moving.

The last part of our definition of playfulness becomes “… followed by immediate but temporary chosen actions.”


By playing with words, cutting the definition of mindfulness into three parts and analyzing the difference with playfulness, we can form the definition of playfulness.

From mindfulness: ​”A state of mind that is characterized by the awareness of one’s own physical experiences, feelings and thoughts, without immediately switching to automatic reactions.”

To playfulness ​: “A state of mind that is characterized by imagination in regard to cultural habits and behavioral rules, followed by immediate but temporary chosen actions.”

The two do not contradict each other. One is no better or worse than the other. They can even complement each other nicely. When you experience stress, mindfulness can be a way to find peace. If you then look for ways to get back into the game, but not to step into the same stressful pitfalls, you can break through patterns with playfulness.

A final note is that in addition to the differences, there is also overlap. I think the overlap between mindfulness and playfulness is in “vertigo”. Vertigo is one of the four types of play according to French philosopher Roger Caillois and can be explained as “p​laying with physical sensations”​. In the School for Ninja, the four types of play of Caillois are the phases of the game. After an introductory phase about playfulness in general,​ “​vertigo” is ​the first type of play you train. After that you enter the phases ​”role play”,​ “​games of skill”,​ and ​”games of chance”.​ Within the School for Ninja you will train ​from mindfulness to playfulness​, with the aim of rediscovering the value of play in your life, so that you can face challenges with more fun and less stress and together with other players have an impact on your environment.


Get started with playfulness

If you want to get started with playfulness yourself, a number of games are freely accessible. The best known is the ​Superbetter app by American game designer Jane McGonigal. Recently released is the online game Adventures with anxiety from Canadian indie game developer Nicky Case. Of course there is my own ​School for Ninja​, via the website you can now register to play with a number of people from your organisation. P​lay along?

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