"Can you come over and play?"

When was the last time you called a friend and asked that question?

Like most adults, you probably left your "playtime" somewhere back there in your childhood, forgetting to incorporate "play" into the lexicon of the corporate world, the bureaucracy or the cocktail-party circuit.

At least one adult would like to see you play more. Pittsburgh psychologist and expressive-play specialist Ed Lilley is even devoting part of his career to getting other adults to indulge in play as an essential part of their lives, a "creative alternative to burnout."

"Even when we adults are told, 'Okay, now you can play,' " says Lilley, "it's difficult for us to turn it on.

"We take our books and our papers and our responsibilities to the seashore with us because we are terrified. What will we do with that time? We are so unused to permission to play."

Lilley, 43, gave that permission to professional care-givers in a recent freewheeling workshop at George Washington University.

The lanky Pied Piper of play led 35 men and women, mainly art therapists, ranging in age from 24 to mid-50s, in a zany array of exercises.

The "players" created machines--a one-armed bandit, gumball machine, vacuum cleaner, computer--with their bodies; played invisible instruments; spoke to each other in the "language" of gibberish (nonsense syllables streamed into words, phrases and sentences making sense, surprisingly, to both speaker and listener).

They skipped, danced, hopped, shouted; spoke in strange unknown languages; performed spontaneous skits. They were there for various reasons: renewal of self; professional enrichment (to incorporate modes of "play" into their own work); personal attention to their own needs.

As children, play "was our profession," Lilley reminded them.

"It was the thing that we did. We learned the greatest bulk of the knowledge we had when we arrived at school though using all of our senses--this whole body, this whole expressive instrument.

"When we arrived at school, we were getting messages: 'Leave the body home, bring your head in here and I will do to it what needs to be done.' "

"I hope you're lucky enough," he said, "to have someone in your life with whom five minutes of the time you are with them you're into another mode and that's why you love them and that's why you've found them.

"You are freer, you are more creative, you have inside jokes. You may have inside language you do take-offs on; you just go flying with whatever it is. And there's a lot of laughter with a playmate.

"Some people are lucky enough to have that be their mate, that is wonderful and very, very rare. We learned back there, learned successfully that we don't deserve that much play in our lives."

Lilley got his start in expressive play in 1977, when he developed a program at a Pittsburgh child-development center to nudge delayed 2- to 5-year-olds into mainstream education.

My games, he says, "often come out of specific wishes I have for people. I wish that person would stand up for themselves. Then I make up a game in which they can experience that."

His work with a public-school special-education class was the subject of the 1978 documentary film, "A Touch of Hands," winner of the Council on International Nontheatrical Events (CINE) Golden Eagle Award.

The class "made puppets, rehearsed the puppet show and presented it to the rest of the school. The special-education kids were the the experts, the stars in the show. They became heroes in the minds of their fellow kids."

Lilley also spent 10 years as a high-school speech teacher. As a director of class plays, he "saw people becoming more special to others, more resilient, better able to roll with the punches, in general more creative, more open.

"It's not an accident," he says, "that that form is called a play or the people called players. To think that actors are permitted to spend all day with mustaches on and hats, and that they can walk around and change their voices and go forth disguising their faces and that that is semirespectable."

Lilley, a single parent who lives outside Pittsburgh with his 11-year-old daughter, now works as a play-therapy consultant at Riverview Children's Center, a child-care center for children 2-12. Currently in the third cycle of an 8-week adult play group, he plans to start a play group for 2-year-olds and their parents in the fall.

As we "grow up," says Lilley, we submerge the desire to play. "But it does not leave us at all. We are never successful ever at really doing away with it."

It spills over, he says, and resurfaces in more formalized and "acceptable" activities. "Adults are allowed to play guitars, play baseball, play video games."

"Play with a young child," says Lilley. "When the child tires, if you find you are still there on the floor playing with the blocks, imagining stories for the dolls, or otherwise engaged in play, you'll know that it's a part of you too."