We Play, Therefore We Are

Today we’re welcoming Sarah Kean-Price from the UK, more precisely from Bath, England. Sarah emailed me a couple of months ago to see if she could publish a guest post on philosophy and play. As I am singularly unqualified to speculate on this topic, I jumped at the chance to have her share her thoughts with PlayGroundology’s readers.

When Sarah isn’t having great fun mishmashing culture and philosophy, she writes clear, centred and personable content over at www.marmaladecopy.co.uk. Tweet @marmaladecopy to say hi.

Being as you are reading a playground-centric blog, you probably already agree that playgrounds are a good and useful thing. A manner of thing that leads only to good ends and useful experiences. But why? How can this be argued? And what exactly do good and useful mean, anyway? Do these sound like pointless questions?

They’re not. I want to make sure we’re singing from the same hymn sheet as this guest post about playgrounds is one of philosophy and the first thing you do in philosophy is define your terms.

So, let’s get things straight – I will be using the words good and useful to mean ‘a thing, entity or process that is overwhelmingly beneficial to the concerned party’. Falling off a spinning roundabout is a horrible, horrible process but, my goodness, along the way you will learn something about physics, bodily response, probability, safety, risk-taking and playing nicely with others – this is why we can call it good.

The child amidst his baubles is learning the action of light, motion, gravity, muscular force…

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

‘Personal development’ refers to the process of accumulating experience and becoming an individual with a distinct personality. These are good because, when we know ourselves better , we can all then work better together to achieve our collective goals of knowledge, spirituality, family, community and progress.

Finally, I imagine we all agree what playgrounds are and have to make certain assumptions about what we agree to be good for society because this is only short and this isn’t the arena for the nitty-gritty of ethics.

Still with me? Welcome to doing philosophy. It’s great. I swear it is, really.

What do philosophers think about play?

When you think of Philosophy, names like Plato and Descartes and concepts like ‘is it all real?’ spring to mind. However, some philosophers have looked into how play can be considered a Good Thing and part of humanity’s flourishing development. We’ll look at how playground use is practically useful (i.e. how it makes for good society) and existentially useful (i.e. how it helps us understand, deal with and live within the human condition.). So, what are the arguments?

Broadly, philosophers think that play is good and useful because:

− It defines the kind of person we are and engenders values.
− Playtime demands order and adherence which are useful behaviours.
− It frees us from ‘the tyranny of purposes’ because play exists only for itself.
− It creates a usable understanding of irony and absurdity.

Why is play practically useful to us?

At base, personalities are defined by preferences – “I am the kind of person who likes biscuits.”, “I am the kind of person that does not like hard pillows.”.

You get to develop your personality when you have opportunities to try out different practices and ways of displaying preferences. Playing in a playground is great for this.

Maybe you like the blunt and repetitive feel of climbing up and sliding down.

Maybe you like the open-ended and soothing motion of a swing.

Maybe you’re a thrill-seeker and you find that, no matter how hard you push and run, roundabouts never quite go fast enough.

Or maybe you’d rather hide under the climbing frame alone and invent a totally different kind of place; a cave or castle or home or den.

Our playgroundees are learning things about themselves which, in turn, enables the concept of choice-making: “I like to feel the pull of gravity and therefore, I want to go on the swing”.

Almost all creativity involves purposeful play.

– A. Maslow

Next, it affects the way that we display preference and make choices. Doing so enters our users into social contracts. Playing together starts to form an idea of what is good and bad social interaction. Consequences lead from certain behaviours and we invoke certain social qualities – either through care-givers or from seeing others respond to our behaviour.

Experience in this area will lead to a considered, developed personality which, in turn, is a good thing for society.

Next, the more hyper-philosophical.

How playgrounds are good for coping with life

Philosophically, the human condition is a tricky one. Namely – what is the point of it all? Many of us are religious or really strong advocates of certain social systems (like socialism or conservatism). If you adhere to these systems and feel that you’ve got it all figured out, this next part may not ring as true for you.

For the rest of us though, some of the existential thoughts surrounding playgrounds and playing are useful. To recap; existential philosophy is concerned with our reasons for and the understanding of how and why we live.

The most important sentiment here is that playground time creates a world within a world. Play allows you to seek meaning that is wholly grounded in the present, rather than the future. It concentrates on the deed rather than the goal.

Culture arises and unfolds in and as we play.

– J. Huizinga

The problem with working towards goals – whether they be a work promotion, raising a child or examination – is that they are inherently destructive. To achieve a goal, you must complete it and it becomes no more. Then you find another one. And achieve that. And so on. (Please note that I am not stating that having and attaining goals is morally or ethically bad.).

When you start a play goal, you impose an order and adherence to a make-believe situation that exists purely for itself. It has a natural end-point that doesn’t necessitate the setting of another.

This is particularly relevant because it can be argued that there isn’t much of a meaningful point to life. We all have goals but what’s really the point of it all in the end, really, when you get down to it? Unless you feel there is some form of salvation at the end of it, life’s meaning can be difficult to find.

As such, purposes are relatively futile and consume your present. Instead of seeking meaning via the fulfilment of future conditions that will endlessly repeat, you find it concretely in the present through your play.

The real philosophical value of play

And here is what our theorists argue is the real value of play, philosophically speaking. In moments of play, you step outside the drive of goal-fulfillment and reside within the calm of play’s simplicity, orderliness and it’s for-itself-ness. You escape the ‘tyranny of purposes’ where everything has a reason for being done, endlessly focusing on the future instead of appreciating the present.

Moreover, play is excellent preparation for life as it helps you become familiar with irony and absurdity. You become aware of the idea of assumed roles, doing things that are nominally pointless and the idea that you might say and do one thing whilst the reality of the situation is very different.

Play allows us to develop alternatives to violence and despair; it helps us learn perseverance and gain optimism.

– Stuart Brown M.D.

Irony and absurdity are more important than ever these days. We live in a knowledge-saturated environment that constantly generates new ways of doing things whilst being full of skepticism and disrespect for many of our traditional values and qualities.

Despite this, we still set life goals and still place value in certain ways of living. Understanding that we can and will want to take part in things without the reasoning of an over-arching system – like playing house, pretending to tunnel in the sand or running around for a game of Tag – is a lesson that can be universally applied and appreciated as you grow.

We play, therefore we are. Nos ludere, ergo sunt. Watcha think of that Descartes?


5 responses to “We Play, Therefore We Are

  1. Well now that just woke up a whole bunch of brain cells. I liked that!

  2. Pingback: Nos ludere, ergo sunt. We play, therefore we are. «

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