The Power of Play: Shirley’s Story

I’ve just finished reading Richard Reeves’ great blog post on Playfulness, and it’s inspired me in turn to write.

There’s an an old saying “We don’t stop playing because we get old – we get old because we stop playing“.  It’s certainly true that as folk get older they can tend to forget how to play with the mindfulness, sponteneity and joyfulness of children.

It’s perhaps ironic that ‘fun’ has become an engineered thing in some organisations – a kind of forced group activity that lacks the very spirit of play it’s intended to engender.

Play – genuine, spontaneous, and heartfelt play – is definitely a source of strength, resilience, creativity and inspiration. But it can’t be engineered – only encouraged. It’s a mindset, not a map. And it needs to be a philosopy of life, not some kind of mandated policy.

Girl PlayingSpending time with children is always a great reminder of the power of play – it’s almost impossible to remain unplayful in their presence. But there are also grown-ups who’ve not forgotten the magic.

I remember Shirley, a wonderful woman and the mother of a friend of mine, who always brought the light of play into her own and others’ lives until she passed away at 60+ years young. She’d not forgotten her six-year-old self, and she helped others re-discover their own capacity for play.

And at those times she and those around her would become ‘lost in the unfolding’ as Richard so eloquently expressed it.

As I read Richard’s post I found my head filled with memories of Shirley. And I also remember the playfulness she brought to much more serious things. She contracted cancer that proved incurable, so the last year of her life was a time you wouldn’t think would lend itself to playing.

But Shirley’s indomitable spirit meant she created fun even as she fought a losing battle with her illness.

Silly HatShe made herself crazy hats to wear as she lost her hair through chemotherapy, and also made a game of this with friends and family who gave her gifts of ever-crazier hats.

Shirley wore them all, returning to the gift-givers her own gifts of love and laughter.

She even had fun ‘playing’ with arranging her own funeral. Dickering over details with various funeral parlours. laughing over the stuffiness of some, and being as cheekily provocative as only Shirley could be until she found one she liked.

On the day of Shirley’s funeral, there was standing room only for the last folk to arrive. The chapel was packed. Family members and friends spoke of the difference Shirley had made in their lives – and I don’t think there was a dry eye in the room.

But at the end of the service, as we were about to leave, the song Shirley had chosen to end the service rang through the chapel. It was Always Look on the Bright Side of Death from the Monty Python Life of Brian movie!

It was Shirley’s last playful gift to us all. And we found ourselves smiling through our tears.


  1. Richard Reeve says:

    Nothing could be more fulfilling for me in this space than stimulating a post on another blog. What an amazing story of the spirit of playfulness.

    • Richard – Thank you for your comment and for the spark that lit my memory and inspired me to share the story. When I think of Shirley it reminds me that playfulness is not just something to reserve for the good times. It can also help us bring a little light into dark times as well.

  2. Lovely story, Sue. What came up for me as I read it is my own favorite cartoon character.

    As a ice breaker in workshops or training (with Positive Matrix) I ask the question, “if you could be a cartoon character, who would you be and what would you be like to live with?”

    In answering my own question, it came to me as clear as could be, I would be Tinkerbell. I would wave my fairy wand, sprinkle joy and happiness all over so we would be more playful with each other.

    Shirley’s funny hats and funeral song just resonated with my Tinkerbell story and wanted to share.

    • What a great question to ask folk. I guess it would elicit almost as many answers as there are cartoon characters. And I do like the idea of Tinkerbell behaving herself and spreading only joy, happiness and playfulness with her wand. In Barrie’s story she could sometimes be a bit ’snarky’ and vindictive after all! It was because she was too tiny to hold more than one feeling at a time – so when she was angry, there was no room for anything else. Mind you, I think it’s this very capriciousness that makes her such an fascinating little character! :-)

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