“How is that Play?” “Yes, but, what play did you do there?” “I wouldn’t call that play!” or even, simply, “That’s not play!”
I heard all these things – more than once – at some point during my 100 Days of Play challenge. It seems that while many people shy away from giving a precise definition of what play is, nobody is shy about declaring, definitively, that some particular activity or other is not play!
I had been clear from the outset that I needed to push the bounds of what counts as play. After all, the whole experience was supposed to be about exploring and ‘finding my play’ so I didn’t want to be restrictive about the sorts of activities I undertook. Even so, there were, of course, times when I wondered if I had gotten onto completely the wrong track. Did I simply not understand what play is? Was I just doing things that people find fun (and that some people don’t)?
My mum, who is a child psychotherapist, seems to feel that only completely free play is play. If you haven’t been plonked in front of a pile of coloured blocks, dolls and trucks and spontaneously chosen to start making up an imaginative story or create an artistic or engineering marvel, you’re not playing. Okay, so that’s one perspective, but by that definition what are we going all the rest of the time when we’re doing odd, autotelic activities?
I’m no fan of considering play to be valuable only for learning or creativity – but if only free play is play then you’d surely exclude all those directed educational activities that use play to help you learn, or play to come up with innovative solutions.
Others were very happy to tell me that something wasn’t play for me, because somehow it didn’t conform to an unspoken requirement for play that they might have. So if I found solving a crossword nine-tenths frustration, it couldn’t be my play. So perhaps play has to be something you either are, or feel, good at?
It also felt like people were adamant that play must be a discrete activity. Alphabetising my books was a chore and therefore couldn’t be considered play. Whereas, I’d say, arranging your dolls into the right order for a tea party surely is?
Some play denials really surprised me. I thought it would be obvious that going to the zoo was play, but it didn’t seem to accord with how many others felt. I even found myself justifying it by saying ‘I’ll watch the animals playing’ – and then had to row back and explain that it’s 100 Days of Me Playing.
What can you or I take away from this?
Firstly, it seems (at least currently) that play resists careful observation. I was justifying activities because I was explicitly labelling them as play, which of course most people (including me) wouldn’t normally do.
Secondly, it both does and doesn’t matter. Play doesn’t care if you call it by name… but how can we play more, or more deliberately, if we don’t know it when we see it?
Finally, I stand by my interpreting the brief as broadly as possible. Doing activities that are play for many, but might have turned out not to be play for me is absolutely useful for understanding how I play. I’d suggest everyone has a go at a new playlike activity at least a few times a year – otherwise how will you ever know if it’s the play for you?