Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Playful Intelligence

Unpacking your childhood wisdom.

This post is the first in a series about a concept that I call playful intelligence. From an intelligence theory perspective, playful intelligence is not a radical new form of intelligence. Rather, it’s an extension of both intrapersonal and interpersonal intelligence, which were described by Howard Gardner, an American developmental psychologist best known for his theory of multiple intelligences. Intrapersonal intelligence is knowledge of the internal aspects, feelings, emotions, and behaviors of oneself; interpersonal intelligence is knowledge of others’ moods, temperaments, motivations, and intentions. Bringing these concepts together, playful intelligence is the notion of having a working knowledge of how playfulness influences the internal and external aspects of adult life.

The concept began as a response to me feeling as though my life was spiraling in too many different directions. I had come to a point that I now refer to as “Barrie’s crossroad.” It’s a crossroad I think we all reach sooner or later. Simply put, when you find yourself using every ounce of your soul to endure adulthood, while wondering whether you’re actually enjoying it, you’re at Barrie’s crossroad.

My life was blurring into a frazzled mosaic of busyness, perfectionism, and exhaustion. I thought about whether I was depressed. I didn’t think so. Anxious? Sure, but aren’t we all anxious on some level? As I looked deeper, what became clear was that the playful parts of my personality were being worn down by the intensity, stress, and seriousness of adulthood.

At the turn of the 19th century, when adult life was similarly overtaking the Scottish playwright James Barrie, he decided to write a play about a boy named Peter who never wanted to grow up. Maybe you’ve heard of him: Peter Pan? Writing a (now iconic) play was Barrie’s attempt to hold onto childhood wisdom that he thought was escaping him. Essentially, it was his attempt to traverse his own crossroad.

For better or worse, I have a habit of trying to think my way through peril. So it turned out that my version of Barrie’s crossroad actually became a quest to learn how playfulness affects adult life. I thought that if I could wrap my head around the true benefits of playfulness in adulthood then I might be able to reclaim it as a balancing force and maybe even pay the insight forward.

I began by observing, studying, and interviewing people who live with a lighter step, who live a little more on the playful side of the coin (rather than the serious side, where I usually am). Some were my family and friends. Some were my patients. And some were strangers. I also searched across a range of disciplines—psychology, sociology, history, neuroscience, and economics—to uncover the hidden ways that playfulness helps us offset the intensity of adulthood. I then compiled my observations and the science, drew conclusions, and started writing.

The writing eventually transformed into a book. But don’t get me wrong: I would never recommend writing a book (or a play for that matter) when you’re at Barrie’s crossroad. However, I did discover some surprising things that have helped me better navigate the challenges that adulthood throws our way.

In this series of posts, I’ll touch on some of these discoveries and hopefully provide you with a glimpse of what playful intelligence is and how it can help us. The overarching message I’d like to share is that at this point in your life, it’s just as important to think about playfulness as it is to play. Let’s look at the difference between the two for a moment.

Play is an action. Playfulness is a set of behaviors. Play is the act of throwing horseshoes in your backyard. Playfulness is an inclination to smile or laugh while you’re doing it (unlike your Uncle Bo, who takes it way too seriously). One playful family I know often tells the story of their first trip to the circus—an act of play. Excited to capture the memory of their family outing, the parents ushered their children to a stage where families could have their picture taken with clowns. As the family stepped onto the stage, the youngest son burst into tears. Everyone—the parents and siblings, as well as the clowns and photographer—tried to calm him, but to no avail. Then the mother shouted, “Quick, let’s do grumpy faces!” And everyone frowned happily as the photographer snapped the photo—an act of playfulness.

Acts of play come easy, and most of us aren’t missing them. Jump-starting the playful part of our personalities is harder. This requires intention as well as knowledge of how playfulness makes our lives better. To get there, one of the things that I learned in my research is that playfulness in adulthood is best understood as a function of playful behaviors. A sum of its parts, you could say. This may seem obvious, but it’s crucial to grasp if you want to build a framework in your mind that allows you to easily tap into the power of playfulness at a moment’s notice.

The five playful behaviors that seem to hold the highest value in adulthood are imagination, sociability, humor, spontaneity, and wonder. The most interesting thing about these behaviors is how differently they function in our adult lives as compared to when we were kids. In this sense, our childhood wisdom, which is built on these behaviors, never actually escapes us (as Barrie believed his was doing). It just works a lot differently now.

Until next time, I'll leave you with this visual: Picture a dusty, padlocked trunk that has been sitting in the attic of your mind since you first set sail into adulthood. On its rusty nameplate reads: Childhood Wisdom. When you unlock the trunk and begin unpacking what’s inside, your eyes widen because you’re taken back to a different time in your life, a time with less worry and perhaps more joy. As you look closer, you notice that everything inside the trunk appears a little different than you remember. What’s more, everything seems to be moving and working in new and exciting ways. As you begin to see exactly how your childhood wisdom can help smooth the rough edges of your adult life, a fresh energy starts to rise up inside of you.

That energy is the awakening of your playful intelligence.

More from Anthony T. DeBenedet M.D.
More from Psychology Today