norbert rosing bear dog
Johan Huizinga, who wrote a book on the subject, defined play as follows:

a free activity standing quite consciously outside ëordinaryí life as being ënot seriousí but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly

Other books have urged the incorporation of more play into health and fitness routines, school activities, work activities, and of course social activities. Play is more engaging, easier to persevere with, more relaxing and stimulating and creative. It helps you to think differently.

We use the term to mean many things: hobbies, games, dancing, role-playing, roughhousing and other unstructured physical exercise (alone or socially), story-telling and other imagining and innovating activities, joking, flirting and other empathic activities, using toys, and a variety of sports and recreational activities. We say we ‘play’ a musical instrument. We contrast it to work, which is ‘serious’ activity. Yet for many play is fiercely competitive, and for them it is only ‘fun’ if you win. Is this still play?

A few years ago I wrote about Tom Robbins’ concept of ‘crazy wisdom’:

Robbins describes his personal experiences with near-suicidal depression, and how he was able to pull himself back from the brink of what he calls Weltschmerz (What a wonderful word! — per it means “Sadness over the evils of the world, especially as an expression of romantic pessimism.”) The trick was to rediscover playfulness, or what the Tibetan Buddhists call Crazy Wisdom. Robbins says it is “the wisdom that evolves when one, while refusing to avert one’s gaze from the sorrows and injustices of the world, insists on joy in spite of everything”.

Hmmm. For many people I know, what should properly be play (i.e. joyous and fun) is instead essential therapy for coping with their Weltschmerz:

  • Our commercial entertainments are ultra-violent and escapist (to inure us to the pain of everyday modern living?)
  • Comedies are cruel put-downs of caricatures, whose sole function seems to be to make those with low self-esteem feel that at least someone is stupider or more ridiculous than they are.
  • Sports are either so competitive as to provoke fights and tantrums, or so ‘extreme’ as to provoke near-cardiac arrest. This is supposed to be fun? And what exactly is a ‘spectator sport’ anyway — vicarious play?
  • Video games are addictive, needing no imagination and little real social interaction, and seem to test one’s capacity to manage chronic excessive adrenaline flow rather than evoking anything that could be called real pleasure.
  • In fact, a lot of ‘recreational activities’ (what exactly is being ‘recreated’ here?) are addictive — gambling, drug use, overeating, and shopping probably being the big 4 — and I don’t believe that when you can’t stop doing something it’s still ‘play’.
  • Sex is portrayed as desperate, cathartic, even painful. Is this a realistic portrayal what happens in most of the world’s bedrooms — a stress-busting, power-displaying, skill-testing, sleep-inducing ‘workout’, when it should be play, fun, and full of laughter? If so, no wonder it’s disappeared from so many relationships, and has driven so many to consume performance-enhancing drugs.
  • I suspect exactly the same can be said of the dating ‘game’.
  • “Work hard play hard” is presented as the model for leaders. But to me if you work that hard, you’re probably not working smart. And isn’t gentle play more fun?

In short, I think we’ve lost the practice, and forgotten the meaning, of play.

While I agree with John Perry Barlow that we should not pursue happiness for its own sake, I do think we should make more time for play.

How might we do this? I think most of us could probably learn from the masters — young children. Engaging with them, making stuff up with them, or just playing non-competitive games like hide & seek, can re-teach us the value of imagining just for fun. And the key to real play is imagination. And with children of course, the sillier the better.

Practicing a piece of music a thousand times is work, and while it is admirable if it leads to excellence, it is hardly play. Improvising with other musicians, on the other hand, just jamming and making it up as you go along is play — just look at the faces of those participating and you’ll know that immediately.

Companion animals (and even watching wild creatures) can also teach us about play. It’s how young creatures learn, effortlessly and safely and joyfully, but even older creatures indulge often in play, especially when they’re around the young.

Other improvisational activities — dancing, flirting, role-playing — balance imagination (breaking the rules and making stuff up) with the social and physical constraints (‘rules’) of each activity. The tension between them — knowing when to do what’s expected and when to interject the unexpected — is what makes them playful. The role-playing I do in the virtual world Second Life is most enjoyable when it’s creative, whimsical, clever — our island is mostly natural but has a kitschy flying submarine. Likewise, carnivals and masquerade parties and murder mystery evenings give you the chance tobe someone else — to get outside yourself and flex your imagination.

What other ideas do you have that could help us all put more play into our lives?

Category: Being Human
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6 Responses to Play

  1. How about playing with rocks like your friend Chris Corrigan does?I thoroughly enjoy playing with my Husky (I do love the photography series that your picture on this post is part of). I can get lost playing with him–he’s creative, spontaneous and very funny. I also love to play with art. A fun art project (‘found’ art especially) with lots of materials to choose from is such a playful experience. Even more fun with a group.I so playing with groups of people–experiential learning is one of my favorite ways to learn and teach, and it always involves play. Psychodrama is incredibly playful and stimulating. Thanks for asking the question!

  2. Paxus says:

    Dearest Dave:Well of course, you could consult the funologist. This is a group of quasi-crypto-scientists who are studying fun, building repeatable experiments and measuring fun. See i think you are a bit dismissive of video games. My 6 year old son, Willow has taught me civilization, which is very elaborate video game – certainly slightly addictive, but requires imagination and is exciting.Paxus in Am*dam9 Falling Leaves 2K8

  3. ‘Fun’ and ‘play’ are deceptively complex concepts. We know when we have had fun but to then try and describe what fun is to someone who wasn’t there is impossible.On a practical note, if you need an easy and safe ice breaker before a meeting or brainstorming session then try this;Sit people in a circle if possible then introduce an inflated balloon into the circle. The idea is to pat the balloon from one person to another whilst keeping it from touching the floor. It’s an incredibly simple device but it works because it clearly has no ‘meaning’ as an activity, is non verbal (thus removes any ego postures) and absorbs the group in a co-operative endeavour.

  4. Lately I’ve been reading some works of Paul Shepard who references Edith Cobb quite a bit. She wrote Ecology of Imagination in Childhood and believed that as children played and explored their environment their neural development mirrored the landscapes of play.I think that’s probably true throughout the lifespan. Play is a joyful interaction with our environment. Our defenses our down–we let ourselves go–and that is probably the perfect state of mind to encourage innovation and novelty. We need periods of play, and I believe it helps us develop towards our fullest potential.

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Thank you so much for these delightful, and playful, thoughts! I need to do some more research on play — I’m amazed at how little work seems to have been done on it (except for children).

  6. Jim says:

    Depends on how you practice. It’s the spirit of it, not the fact that you practice something 1,000 times, that makes it play or not.

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