My friend got married recently, so the night before we drank lots, played some party games, listened to music and generally had an evening devoted to letting down our hair and to Play. It might seem a strange question to ask, but this got me thinking about what the role is of Play in marking major life changes.
Why should we celebrate adulthood or marriage or one year more on Earth with play? You could imagine a society which, when you reach your birthday, subjects you to various tests to monitor your progress. Or which promotes you at work. Or where you’re expected to make some sort of contribution to society. The fact that these seem such alien possibilities doesn’t in itself mean that they’re off the table. It’s just that we are so ingrained with the idea that we mark milestones with play that it feel unnatural to imagine anything else.
It would be a shame if the reason is that a milestone gives us an excuse to play and therefore we indulge in what we always want to be doing, but resist because of a lack of societal permission. Sadly, I suspect this is a good proportion of the explanation.
The other part is more optimistic: that play is so important – and recognised as so important – that we have built in moments where play isn’t just considered acceptable, but is actively encouraged.
Much of the talk during this impromptu stag night was of who had brought the gaffer tape (I don’t think taping the groom naked to a lamppost would have gone down well with him, or in fact the bride!). It was clear that there wasn’t just permission to play, but an active drive towards transgression.
Play reminds people of what’s really going on. It draws attention to the moment and invites us to remember it for positive reasons. It reassures us of our own freedom and allows us to let go of the constraints that we might lay on ourselves in everyday life. When we play we assert ourselves – but of course it can also be social and allow us to bond with one another in an activity lacking the hierarchies and specified patterns of work or planned-out activities.
We make the groom the focus of the evening – and thereby wish him well – but we also do it together, and in a way that hopefully the whole group enjoys.