The Power of Play, Part II: To Play is to Be Human

Previously, I shared a story when I and a few of my college buddies stumbled upon the great game of Toilet Paper War. From there I, with the aid of UC Berkeley researcher Alison Gopnik’s article “Why Play is Serious,” attempted to convey how crucial play is to children and adults alike, especially if they want to expand their divergent or creative thinking. Gopnik called it “counterfactual” thinking. As an educator, I find the ability to expand on and improve one’s thinking immensely important to our growth as individuals and as a species. Again, that is why play as it relates to thinking is crucial; however, thinking is what we do. I would like to discuss play as it is related to who we are (as individuals and as a species). I find that the power of play is not simply in how it can help in our thinking, but I find that its real power is found in how it can help our being— and more specifically, our being human.

What is Play?

Harvard-educated anthropologist John Fox in his 2012 book, The Ball: Discovering the Object of the Game, discusses the way in which play, as done around the invent of the ball, is elemental to our evolution as a species. Fox starts his book with a quote from the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus; it is one that I would like to begin with as well:

“Man is most nearly himself when he achieves the seriousness of a child at play.”

After setting the tone of his text with this extract, Fox goes on to discuss the way in which play, for centuries, was viewed– much as it is in today’s modern, fast-paced society, as “silly,” “of limited immediate function,” “[a] purposeless activity, for its own sake,” “not serious,” “connected with no material interest,” “an occasion of pure waste: waste of time, energy, ingenuity, skill, and often money” (14).  What’s more, play has so often been deemed the polar opposite of work and, therefore, counterproductive. This is a sentiment that Mark Twain puts forth through his protagonist, Tom, in The Adventures of Tom Sayer. As Tom says, “work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.” A reasonable enough definition, at least for the modern era since that which we are “obliged” to do are the things we don’t want to do, namely: work and work-related activities.

In an effort to further expound on what play is, Fox goes on to give seven defining characteristics, as explained by Stuart Brown, the founder of the National Institute of Play (which, yes, is a real institute— I looked it up). Again, here are the seven institutionally defined characteristics of play:

  1. Play is voluntary.
  2. Play has inherent attraction; that is, it’s fun.
  3. Play gives us freedom from time.
  4. Play allows us to experience diminished consciousness of self.
  5. Play is about improvisation.
  6. Play sparks a continued desire in us; that is, we don’t want to quit.
  7. Play is apparently purposeless.

Some of these definitions are what we expect of play, mainly numbers 1, 2, 6, and 7: 1) Play is voluntary, 2) Play is fun, 6) Play sparks a continued desire, and 7) Play is apparently purposeless. However, it’s the other characteristics on the list that shed a new and interesting light on the fundamental, if not existential, quality of play. To stress this point, I would like to take a moment expand on numbers 3, 4, and 5:

No. 3: Play “gives us freedom from time. When we play, we’re in a state of flow and time flies.”

This is nothing new, another aphorism proves that: “time flies when you are having fun.” Yet, how tethered to our watches, phones, and schedules are we as a people? People are living longer, but not living freer, happier, or healthier lives because of it. On the contrary, suicides rates are up, drug (pharmaceutical and narcotic) addiction is up, and cardiovascular disease (due to obesity and stress) is the number one killer of modern man. Play combats these things; play takes us, at least momentarily, to a place that is seemingly free of time and circumstance. The Japanese know this, and that is why they have an old proverb that says, “time spent laughing is time spent with the gods.” Society now, however, is so concerned with adding years to our short gluten-free, prescription-filled lives. But why not try adding stress-free, fun-filled life to whatever short years we do have? I propose that play helps us do that.

No. 4: When we play, “we experience diminished consciousness of self. That is, we lose ourselves in the moment.”

Cue Eminem’s 2005 hit, “Lose Yourself” off of his Curtain Call album. As Em’ says: “You better lose yourself in the music/ the moment/ You own it/ you better never let it go.” But how do we as humans live less shackled to the public’s opinion of us? How do we escape the hegemonic hold of the social eye? In the era when publicity is king, how do we stop kneeling to it? Play. Play allows for one’s self to arrest self-consciousness and simply see, do, and be. Play is, in this sense, personally liberating. It sounds hippy, I know, but a person doesn’t think about their weight, hair, blemishes, or inadequacies when they’re running from a hoard of screaming 12-year-olds armed with Super Soakers. Take my word for it; I was a camp counselor for a number of years, and after a week of camping, mentoring, and fervently playing with 100+ preteens in the mountains of Idlewild, California, the last thing I was was self-conscious. Maybe this is why Jesus Christ said, as recorded in the book of Luke, chapter 18, verse 17, “I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” Christ knew that the self-absorbed individual(s) were not fit for heaven, and whether the reader believes in the idea of heaven or not, the teaching is still valuable: if you want to live well, in this life or the next, be more like children.

No. 5: Play is “about improvisation, make-believe, invention.”

I had previously, with the help of Alison Gopnik, in her article “Why Play is Serious,” alluded to this. Play helps people imagine possibilities. Here, however, new language is added to the idea. Here, invention is a component of play, as well.  And what is more fundamentally human than our ability and our need to invent? What’s more, if the old adage is true, that “necessity is the mother of all invention,” is play simply the conduit with which we meet some of our most basic needs? In other words, if play is invention and necessity is the mother of invention, then by the process of deductive reasoning, does play equal necessity? Since I am a visual learner, and for the sake of argument, allow me to plot my aforementioned argument into a three-part deductive syllogism:

Major premise: Play is improvisation/invention.
Minor premise: Human necessity is the mother of all invention.
Conclusion: Therefore, play is human necessity.

Regardless if the conclusion of my syllogism is sound (and I think it is), my point is well made. A component of play is invention, and invention is essential to the progress of human development. Again, play is profoundly powerful.

John Fox continues in his text, “Through a wide variety of studies across disciplines, from neuroscience to behavioral psychology, these researchers are finding evidence to suggest that play not only has purpose but may serve a critical role in cognitive development and adaption in humans and other mammals” (18). More than that, play “is essential to adaption and survival,” critical to health and socialization,” and “affects the growth and development of our brains” (21).  Did you catch that? Play is “essential to adaption and survival.” Consequently, play is not simply a child’s recreational activity; it is a necessary component of being humans that need to evolve, invent, and thrive. Ergo, play, like work, is fundamental to our existence.

Lifelong Play

And this leads me to one of my original points concerning myself: I am a jovial individual and I attribute my jovial nature to my undying love of play. If my friends, my family, my work, and my hobbies, my travels, or my own passions and desires didn’t lead me to spend a few hours, weeks, months– and hopefully years– playing my time away, I would feel like it was a life spent simply working, waiting, and worrying. And what a wasted life that would be. I realize we all have responsibilities, taxes, and bills, but we also have (or had at one time during our youth) dreams, desires, and a longing for adventure. In essence, we traded our need for play for our need for work. But as John Fox’s book sheds light on, play is as necessary as work. Thus, it’s the rare few who find a way to combine the two needs that make life their playground and their oyster. Kudos to you who do. I know I am going to strive to be a man who plays as hard, if not harder, as he works until the day that I die. And speaking of the day that I die, the Zac Brown Band (hands down one of my favorite bands) has a song entitled “Day That I Die” on their Uncaged album. The lyrics of the chorus go something like this:

“On the day that I die/ I wanna say that I/ Was a man who really lived and never compromised/ And when I’ve lived out my days until the very end/ I hope they find me in my home with guitar in my hands/ I hope they find me in my home with my guitar in my hands.”

And why does Zac Brown, on the day that he dies, want to be found in his home with his guitar in his hands? Because the man loves to play. Admitted, this “play” is a bit different from the one that I have been divulging here, but only by mere shades. For playing music, like the music of a child at play (or a grown man for that matter), as I have shown, offers cognitive, physical, psychological, social, interpersonal, existential, and fundamentally human benefits. Thus, I too want to be a man that dies not at work, or at war, but at play.

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