A playful approach to the climate crisis
Updated: May 14
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the promise taking a playful path holds for helping people think about and respond to the climate crisis.
Hold on. I know what you’re thinking: Surely, you can't be serious. Climate change is Serious Business and there is no room for play in Serious Business.
I think that’s a mistake.
Yes, the climate crisis—or anything else that holds the possibility of mass suffering—is important and deserves serious thought. I don’t mean to trivialize it. Lives are at stake. But I think there is room to reconsider the process we go about our serious thinking.
As far as I know there exists no conclusive body of empirical research within the climate communication literature that suggests scaring the pants off people about climate change motivates them to action. It could be just the opposite. The overwhelming nature of climate change can make our brains freeze or disengage entirely. Why wouldn’t it? This is an enormously complex problem with existential stakes.
If the “scaring the pants off of them” approach hasn’t worked for most people (and given the lack of climate action over the past 30 years I think we could entertain the notion that it hasn’t), perhaps we could rethink our approach to teaching and learning about climate change to better align our efforts with what we know about powerful learning. Might this offer an alternative path that engages people in ways that tap into their creativity and joy?
“...if we want to make it safely and sanely through all the changes coming our way, we’re going to need to come out and play. And if we’re going to come out and play, we’re also going to have to take our need to play in the world more seriously: not so seriously that we forget to have fun - but precisely so seriously that we remember.” - Bernie De Koven
In A Playful Path, the late Bernie De Koven, a world-renowned expert on reconnecting adults to playfulness, writes, “Playfulness...allows you to transform the very things that you take seriously into opportunities for shared laughter, the very things that make your heart heavy into things that make you rejoice...It turns problems into puzzles, puzzles into invitations to wonder.”1
Play is what kids do naturally because it’s how they learn the world. Play allows us to begin making sense of complex situations by exploring, even changing, the rules of “the game,” by taking on different roles, by being present with feelings, by imagining alternatives. “For grown ups,” writes De Koven, “play is a return to life...a renewal.”2
The problem is not that we adults have forgotten how to play. We adults play inside—in our minds—all the time. The problem is that in our pursuit of doing the Serious Business of being adults we don’t actually come out and play anymore.
De Koven reminds us, “...if we want to make it safely and sanely through all the changes coming our way, we’re going to need to come out and play. And if we’re going to come out and play, we’re also going to have to take our need to play in the world more seriously: not so seriously that we forget to have fun - but precisely so seriously that we remember.”3
What I’m advocating for is taking a playful path in our teaching and learning and communications and interactions around the climate crisis.
I’m not sure what exactly this looks like, but I hope to explore it within my blog and the work that I do as a climate action and sustainability coach.
If the idea of creating a playful path to address the climate crisis is something that sparks curiosity within you, too, I invite you to come out of your hiding place. Play with me.
1 De Koven, B. A Playful Path. p. 31
2 ibid. p. 41
3 ibid. p. 13