A Paradox of Play

In my last post I presented reasons why play is an important part of life, is highly beneficial to both children and adults, and is most likely a biological necessity not only for humans but many types of animal as well.

This being so, why don’t we take play more seriously? I think part of the explanation lies in a paradox about play.

This is from Stuart Brown’s working definition of play:

… the first quality of play that sets it off from other activities is its apparent purposelessness. Play activities don’t seem to have any survival value. They don’t help in getting money or food. They are not done for their practical value. Play is done for its own sake… It is also voluntary — it is not obligatory or required by duty.

For something to truly be play, and give the experience of playing, it has to be something that you do for the heck of it, without attaching any greater purpose or significance to it. If you were to do the same activities but motivated by an earnest desire for self-improvement because you know play is meant to be good for you, the activity would automatically cease to be play, the fun would greatly diminish or go out of it altogether, and you wouldn’t get the benefits of playing!

Taking play too seriously destroys it!

Now of course one can “work at” aspects of one’s play. For example you might have a training schedule for your sport, practice sessions for your musical instrument and so on. As long as the ultimate context remains that you follow your pursuit for its own sake, and from your own choosing, this generally doesn’t undermine experiencing playfulness.

The sweet spot of taking things seriously but also lightly is often the most rewarding of all.

At times naturally our “taking things seriously” can get out of hand, and then the once refreshing and delightful hobby becomes another chore to be gotten through. When this happens we start to lose enthusiasm and eventually feel burned out altogether.

“Lightness” also has two major pitfalls. Firstly, while pure spontaneous goofing around is a necessary and rewarding form of play, in many kinds of hobbies that is not enough to make for a satisfying amount of progress. You might be writing your novel for the heck of it, but if you don’t seem to be getting anywhere after months of intermittent writing, you’ll probably get disheartened. Oftentimes your hobby becomes much more fulfilling when you “get serious” about it.

The second pitfall is where we came in: You take your play so lightly that you think it’s not important to make room for it. This can happen with an individual’s personal decisions, but also with choices that societies make. When there is pressure to be achieving ever higher grades, it’s easy for school authorities do decide that fripperies like sport, art and music are relatively dispensable. And when budgets are under stress, why not just sell off the playing fields? So we do that for while, maybe a generation, and then start to worry about inactivity and obesity in kids.

The paradox of play makes our play lives a bit of a balancing act. Sometimes everything is just great, other times it veers off too much one way or the other. Sometimes we need to “lighten up”, other times “get serious”. Perhaps we can take that as a fun challenge in itself!

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