Thursday, 15 February 2007

Level 5 - The Diversity of Play

I liked Jesper Juul's observation [in his article 'The repeatedly lost art of studying games'] about commentators' attitude to defining play: 'It is generally customary for writers on play and games to first describe their elusive character, discuss the impossibility of defining the terms, only to then use them freely and suggestively, indicating that there is after all some meaning attached to the words'. I realised that this was exactly the attitude I took in my previous weblog entry! In some respects, play is not really that elusive. Most people will have a good idea what is meant by *play* and *playing* in just about any context. And this is what impresses me about the notion of play, that it can be recognised and utilised/experienced, in a variety of different fields and purposes.

As Sutton-Smith writes in his book The Ambiguity of Play, 'almost anything can allow play to occur within its boundaries'. Play, as a concept or attitude, has a variety of different applications, which he categorises as follows [only one example of each given]: 'Mind or subjective play (daydreams); Solitary play (hobbies); Playful behaviours (playing tricks); Informal social play (joking); Vicarious audience play (spectator sports); Performance play (playing music); Celebrations and festivals (carnivals); Contests (the Olympics); Risky or deep play (rock climbing)'. This list shows just how ways play can be experienced. He then goes on to cite works on 'tourism as play (McCannel, 1976), television as play (Stephenson, 1967), day dreaming as play (Caughey, 1984), sexual intimacy as play (Betcher, 1987), and even gossip as play (Spack, 1986)'.

In academia as a whole, there has likewise been much interest in the importance of play for animals, individuals and society as a whole. Sutton-Smith again writes that, 'some study the body, some study behaviour, some study thinking, some study groups of individuals, some study experience, some study language - and they all use the word play for these quite different things'. This breadth of enquiry and experience of play highlights its pervasive nature. To expand on this point, I can't resist quoting this list of the varieties of play studies put together by Sutton-Smith, in which he details for what reasons play is studied in a multitude of different academic fields:

'Biologists, psychologists, educators, and sociologists ... focus on how play is adaptive or contributes to growth, development and socialization. Communication theorists tell us that play is a form of metacommunication far preceding language in evolution because it is also found in animals. Sociologists say that play is an imperial social system that is typicallly manipulated by those with power for their own benefit. Mathematicians focus on war games and games of chance ... because of the data they supply about strategy and probability. ... Anthropologists pursue the relationships between ritual and play ... in customs and festivals. ... Art and literature ... focus on play as a spur to creativity. In psychiatry, play offers a way to diagnose and provide therapy. And in the leisure sciences, play is about qualities of personal experience, ... fun, relaxation, escape, and so on.'

This list expresses just how important play can be to human interaction and endeavor, and supports a strong argument for play's inherent *value* and even *necessity* in many areas of human experience. It is clear that play is not just what children do to amuse themselves, it is something that helps an individual of whatever age, to learn, to develop, to perform well and to interact and socialise with others.

But why is there this feeling that play is somehow wasting time? Sutton-Smith suggests that ''play is seen largely as what children do but not what adults do; ... children play but adults recreate'. One of the reasons for this attitude, in Western cultures at any rate, is that play is often associated with childhood, and hence is seen as *immature*. Hence this 'work ethic' view might concede that play is important for children's growth, but for adults sees play as distracting and inefficient, and dismisses play as a luxury which working adults have little time for. Play certainly isn't fit for contributing to 'adult' tasks such as work, or even higher education. However this work ethic standpoint, which in Kane's words, '[pigeonholes] play as 'trivial', 'frivolous', 'silly'', sells the potential of play somewhat short. Sutton-Smith asks the question, 'how can it be that such ecstatic adult play experiences, which preoccupy so much emotional time, are only diversions?'.

Kane, in 'The Play Ethic: A manifesto for a different way of living', recalls an edition July/August 1999 edition of Psychology Today, entitled 'The Power of Play'. This reputable publication presents research highlighting just how beneficial play can be. 'Play makes you live longer... select a trustworthy mate... improves memory... [and] makes [you] happier.' Contrast this with the many stress-related problems that have been linked with over-working. The article also quotes Sutton-Smith as saying, 'The opposite of play isn't work. It's depression'. This encapsulates the fallacy that play is somehow opposed to and irreconcilable with work. In many cases, and I experienced this doing the Google Earth task last week, play can actually *improve* the quality and standard of work, by helping to engage the workers.

It's lunacy to deny that play doesn't have a significant role in adult life. But for it to become accepted as a valid tool for work and learning, it's diversity of application must be acknowledged and expressed. Yes, there are times when play connotes being infantile and foolish, but there are also times when play encourages creativity and growth, personal engagement, and improved collaboration. It should be emphasised that there *are* ways of experiencing play in thoroughly *mature* and effectual ways, and that our work and learning will be better for it.

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