The Metalude: Play Like a Kid at Recess

Can adults really play? Like kids play?

Your Brain On Adulting 

After a certain point, we important adults with our very important work can lose contact with our childlike imaginations. We feel guilty at the mere thought of leaving our cares behind and doing something just because it’s fun. We’re sure the sky will fall if we let ourselves indulge, even for a moment.

We’re optimized down to the second. With every thought, we’re solving problems like FY21 planning or childcare scheduling or what to wear to the meet and greet with the new boss. With every action, we’re working toward a goal and measuring the return on investment of each movement we make via fitness trackers and productivity hacks.

We’ve read that multi-tasking isn’t a thing anymore, but we still cram each waking moment as best we can. We’re working toward a bright and shiny someday retirement bliss that may never come.

So what’s the alternative? If we allow ourselves to play, will we become lazy, selfish, good-for-nothings? The answer is no – it’s exactly the opposite. The real problem that needs to be solved is getting past the blocks to play our adulting brains put up and gain access to real play again. The solution begins with the metalude.

The Metalude Lets the Play Spark Catch Fire

A few years ago, I learned something from a session at the US Play Coalition’s play conference led by Greg Manley, Director of Production at City of Play in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

His talk was about adults and play, but he started by referencing something called the “play cycle” for children. There were several steps in the cycle, but the first and most fascinating is called the metalude.

The metalude is kind of like the kickoff whistle for playtime – it marks the mental shift from whatever we were doing into a mindset that’s open to play. Mr. Manley described it kind of like this:

Mastering The Mental Shift Into Playtime

Imagine a child sitting in class working on math problems. The giant hands of the weird school clock ticks into place at the precise time and voila! It’s recess time!

After the metalude, the child runs out onto the playground and looks around for a person, a game or an object to interact with in play. The metalude isn’t about deciding what to do to play, it’s the moment just before that – when we’ve realize that it’s time for play and decide to let it happen.

Metalude: the mental shift from whatever we were doing into a mindset that’s open to play.

Can Adults Even Do That?

I don’t know about your school, but I don’t remember too many kids practicing spelling words on the playground to get a jump on class time. We didn’t shame each other for looking forward to recess with too much enthusiasm. Recess was time that belonged to us and we knew it. It wasn’t even a question.

Our identities were shaped more by our playground time than the time we spent sitting at our desks. And that doesn’t change when we grow up. But in the infinite wisdom of adulting, we’ve turned it all upside down.

We’re competing to be judged “Most Indispensable to the Bottom Line.” We wise adults created the nightmare that is hustle culture. For most of us, the metalude is a thing of the past, discarded with the boxes of toys.

We Need to Let The Spark Catch Fire

My favorite definition of the word Metalude comes from a PDF hosted on the Oxfordshire City Council website called “The Play Cycle.” It says: “The Metalude is an inner reverie or contemplation that precedes play.

The word itself comes from:

meta” = something that precedes or is above


lude” (which comes from the word ludic) = spontaneous and undirected playfulness.

Just after defining the word, the author asks a question, “Do we have thoughtful, stimulating spaces, objects or images that will spark metaludes?

So, do we? Do we have space in our lives to experience the “inner reverie or contemplation that precedes play?” And more importantly, can we?

“Do we have thoughtful, stimulating spaces, objects or images that will spark metaludes?”

For most of my adult life, the answer has been no. I drank the adulting Kool-Aid before there was a hashtag to go with it.

As a kid, the recess bell meant shifting gears. But as an adult, especially now, the end of the work day doesn’t mean the end of anything. We might work for a few more hours or rush off to pick up kids, make dinner, answer some more emails, finish the deck for tomorrow’s meeting then numb ourselves with whatever brings us down so we can sleep.

Then it’s up for another day of the same thing.

I don’t know about you, but the older I got, the less I felt there was time that felt like it belonged to me. But I refuse to write it off as “just the way it is.” And no, I won’t “get used to it.” I refuse to accept that grownup life is a never-ending slog. That’s how we get bitterness and burnout and the midlife crisis (which I highly recommend, by the way).

We Fear Losing Control

In his New York Times opinion piece, The Harm in Hustle Culture, Roger Cohen gives us a great visual:

The system is rigged. I am no conspiracy theorist, far from it, but all the people out there who feel that their lives have passed out of their control, that they are caught in the maw of some implacable machine, have a point.

I think the reason why we don’t even try to play with abandon like we did when we were kids is fear. We live in that implacable machine and we don’t see a way out. Our survival means compliance – playing by the rules by competing to win at all costs.

Letting ourselves really play again is scary. It’s not the norm. It’s similar to other things we try desperately to restrict. For instance, sometimes it might feel that if you let yourself cry, you’ll never stop. For me, it applies to food too. If I allow myself to have chocolate & peanutbutter ice cream or pasta, that’s all I’ll ever eat for the rest of my life. Right? That can’t be good. So we regulate our emotions; regulate our food; regulate our time down to the second. It’s not a great way to live.

Trusting Our Inner Wisdom Feels Dangerous

We all have inner wisdom we don’t tap into anymore and we pay the price. If you let yourself feel your emotions, you will eventually stop crying. And if you allow yourself to eat ALL the things, your body will tell you when it’s time to stop with the ice cream and pasta. You might just find you’re craving chicken and steamed broccoli instead. (I actually did this experiment.)

We all have inner wisdom we don’t tap into anymore and we pay the price.

Trust that Joy Will Come

If you do open up to the inner reverie that precedes play, there may be strong emotions. You may remember things you loved more than life itself as a child and mourn all of the years you’ve lived without it as an adult. But the joy of having those things back in any capacity will eventually override the grief.

You might be afraid that if you let yourself access those things, you’ll lose track of your goals – that the plates you’ve been spinning will come crashing down. I don’t know about you, but I still have that fear each and every time I choose to take time out for recess. But I do it anyway because the me that comes back to work after some time on the playground is much stronger, sharper and more capable than I could be without it.

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