Something has troubled me for a long time about play: or rather, something has troubled me about how play can be made use of. What it boils down to, this disturbance, is the idea of play being used in the pursuit of ignoble social engineering: let us create our perfect society by manipulating play. ‘Perfection’, of course, is subjective, and this is another problem, but the focus of my disturbance is others’ conscious envisioning of play as a means of, a tool for, the dubious shaping of society. I shall write this post in a deliberately philosophical manner, but it’s inspired by two brief observations of play that took place recently.
In the garden, I was sat in a chair and just relaxing as play took place around me. Princess K. and Dino Boy (who are nearly five and three, respectively) were sat in deckchairs nearby when a spontaneity of ‘Mummies and Daddies’ play broke out. I was co-opted into the play of the moment: ‘You be Daddy’, I was told. She, Princess K., would be ‘Mummy’, and Dino Boy (a.k.a. her younger brother) would be ‘Baby’. This was all nothing new in the observation, and I tried to stay somewhat out of it anyway because, frankly, I was more interested in the observing than in the energy involved in order to be an active participant. I was passive ‘Daddy’. What struck me here most of all though was the voices the two children used to narrate the set-up of the scene to myself and to each other, and in the continuation of that scene: the pitch of their voices went up to a higher degree and stayed there, in role. It was almost like young children enacting what they perceived to be young children: quite odd.
Play, I later considered, had transformed the children’s usual selves. It is to this transformative effect that I shall return later. First though, another brief observation involving the same two children a day later at the local park: both children busied themselves by stuffing various found things (fir cones, bits of grass, sticks, feathers, and so on) into an up-tilted metal spinning device. They were, apparently, making soup. ‘Soup’ feeds into the current philosophical thinking . . .
Play, I’m proposing, can be seen in terms of verb and noun: that is, ‘to play’ (verb) and play as a thing in itself (noun). It is to the latter that my attention is drawn. In making use of play (as noun), as a tool or a medium, the social engineers are bending it to their will (in the building of a society they wish to create): in this model of operating, play is something that can be discarded when the product (child as configured future adult) has been realised (created). This leaves a somewhat disagreeable taste: use play to create fit and healthy people who don’t drain the future economy; use play to develop a literate future workforce; use play to manufacture a society just happy enough with their material assets not to resort to active mass dissent at the ruling few. I’m being cynical, but close analysis of modern society might well justify these statements.
Alternatively, I propose, play (as noun), as thing in itself, ‘is’ the soup we live in. Play is not the tool, the medium, to be discarded after its engineering use is spent: play is the medium in which we live. It’s always there around us, in us, through us: play transforms us, continuously. This begs the question: is this ‘transforming’ what play is for? Further to this, there’s the consideration of the distinction between what play is ‘for’ and what play ‘is’ (or, at least, what it ‘appears’ to be).
Those who make use of play for the building of the great utopian future-society seem to miss the point of what play ‘is’: play is the soup, the fabric, the magic in which we all live. Admittedly, this is a subjective perspective because the best any of us can hope to perceive is what play ‘appears’ to be to them, rather than what it ‘is’, per se. However, all my study, all that I’ve been taught, and most importantly all that I’ve witnessed and personally felt about, and in, play leads me to this conclusion. This is where I position myself. Play should be given the chance to flourish in individuals, in collectives, in the built environments of cities and so forth. Why?
Simply, in asking ‘why play?’, we might as well be asking ‘why breath?’ (Note: I do mean ‘breath’ as noun here, not ‘breathe’ as verb). Play transforms us: not for economic, socio-economic, or passive-consumer purposes, but just because that is what play (this soup, this fabric, this magic in which we live) does. If it is ‘for’ anything, then surely it’s for this, as follows: in our momentary transformation is the moment that is play’s potential to continue, to roll and cycle on, to keep being. Play appears to me to be something that needs to keep moving, swilling, in order for it to be. To attempt to manipulate play for social engineering purposes, to try to mould it into something in order to hammer an object (this child, that child) into a perfect-future product is disagreeable.
What though might we think of ‘noble’ manipulations of play? That is to say, play as therapeutic tool, for example. Children traumatised by abuse, bereavement, ill-health, and so on, can surely be led upon the road to recovery via altruistic mindful therapeutic support? It is to the question of what constitutes ‘noble’ that I focus in on here in trying to make a way through this conundrum. If play is acknowledged, given a chance to be, in the noble aim (yes, again my own subjective analysis) of truly supporting the individual, then play is not manipulated as such but seen. If (‘therapeutic’) play is used in terms of conditioning individuals out of ‘undesirable’ traits, then this also leaves a disagreeable taste.
I know a boy who’s maybe thirteen or fourteen. He’s the big fish in the little pond that is the playground. One day we were surprised to see him in the sand pit. I hadn’t noticed him for a while up till then. It wasn’t that he was in the sand pit that was surprising: he was there for a good twenty or thirty minutes, at a guess; he was with another boy of about the same age; they were poking around with sand and water, and with things to mix one with the other; the boy was actually playing — this was the surprise. Play, that soup, that fabric, that magic, had swilled around and in him. He was absorbed. It was rare and special.
The point of this story diversion is that there is a difference between the over-engineered and the natural. It is the chance for play to take place, to take root, to flow, that we should be engineering, not the children, or the moulding of their play. Why should we being doing this? Isn’t this the same as saying that we’re trying to create a better future society? No, we should be looking to see what’s already here. Play is here. If we look, we’ll see; if we listen, we’ll hear.
Why play? What is it for? Play is transformative for its own ends. Why play? Why breath (noun, thing in itself)?