catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 12, Num 21 :: 2013.11.15 — 2013.11.28


Why play?

As the community development work of *culture is not optional has evolved in Three Rivers, Michigan over the past few years, we’ve found ourselves distilling the focus of our blossoming community center down to “art, food and play.”  Imagination has been a central theme from the beginning — growing our sense of possibility for ourselves and our communities — but, as the theme suggests, there are infinite ways to grow imagination.  Recognizing we can’t do it all, our volunteer staff has needed to discern what our focus will be.  What gives us energy and draws on our passions and skills, while connecting with our neighbors in an invitational way?  Art and food were perhaps the most obvious choices for our particular collection of folks, but play was and is a bit more challenging — necessary in a different way from the other two.

You see, as a group, we’re pretty good at doing things that have a beginning, a middle and an end.  Host a fundraising dinner in an unusual, but beautiful location with delicious, local, seasonal food?  Sure thing — let’s select recipes, make grocery lists, move tables and chairs, hang lights, assign food prep tasks, take orders, pour drinks, wash dishes and crash the next day.  Recruit artists to do installation pieces for a show during our annual daylong festival?  No problem — prepare, execute, evaluate.  Organize a craft project for Family Fun Night?  Plant the tomatoes?  Design a mural?  Check, check and check.

To be sure, there’s a playful element about all of these things for people who really enjoy the work.  But it’s still work.  There’s a plan, there’s a goal, there’s a sense of whether something was “successful” or not.  And that’s why we need to play, both as a group and with our neighbors.  Play forgoes any agenda other than having fun with others.  This fun is usually creative, joyful and physical.  Rules emerge from the will and abilities of the group.  At its best, it’s radically inclusive and utterly ridiculous.  The bad news, in a world obsessed with work, is that play is a critically endangered activity for both children and adults.

In his article “The play deficit” in Aeon Magazine, Peter Gray offers both a historical and a contemporary perspective on trends related to play for children throughout history.  The fundamental assumption he attempts to debunk is that learning is a separate activity from play.  On the contrary, he argues — there are crucial life lessons we cannot learn without play.  The ultimate question is what kind of people we hope to become, individually and collectively, as we are formed by the ways we spend our time:

Do we need more people who are good at memorising answers to questions and feeding them back? Who dutifully do what they are told, no questions asked? … Or do we need more people who ask new questions and find new answers, think critically and creatively, innovate and take initiative, and know how to learn on the job, under their own steam?

Depending on their context, motives and objectives, some people might honestly answer the first two questions in the affirmative.  However, Gray makes a good case that, in a culture-at-large that has been quite significantly shaped by increasingly demanding compulsory schooling, play is more important than ever for growing into flourishing human beings.

While Gray does not extend his thesis to adults in this particular article, we grown-ups also need to say “no” to the demands of work, whether at home or on the job or elsewhere, and let go sometimes.  I especially admire community leaders who recognize the need for play as a collective practice.  A reflection on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Apple Farm Community here in Three Rivers recalls how founder Helen Luke “thought we should play, so we had lots of parties.”  And Jean Vanier, founder of the l’Arche Communities where physically able and disabled adults live together, explains one of his favorite traditions:

When we’ve had oranges for dessert at l’Arche, we sometimes start chucking the peal about at the end of the meal.  Everyone gets into it.  An Englishman once asked me if this was a traditional French custom.  I don’t know about that!  But I do know that it is one way to bring people out of their isolation to express themselves joyfully — especially if they can’t communicate with words.  People who cannot participate in interesting conversations can participate through play.  When a piece of orange peel arrives on their nose, they are delighted — and they throw it back.

When I consider the wisdom of the gospels for informing a playful life, I have trouble identifying a chapter and verse that makes a convenient proof text.  And that’s probably appropriate, because it requires me to engage my imagination: from the boyish things that apparently came out of the disciples’ mouths, I do not have a hard time imagining a pick-up game of tag in the wheat fields (on the Sabbath, even! Tag, Jesus, you’re it!) or someone pushing a disciple out of the fishing boat in the middle of the lake, even before they thought it might be possible to walk on water.  And we know the Son of God knew how to throw one heck of a shindig, from weddings to resurrections — Surprise!  I’m alive!  Now, let’s eat.

For those of us who consider ourselves part of a community working toward a common goal: perhaps we especially need to play, both alone and together, so that we learn to hold more loosely to the end result and more tightly to each other.  So throw an orange peel.  Throw a party.  Run around for no reason, to nowhere in particular.  Laugh with others at yourself.  Grant permission to push pause on achieving and rewind to that time you spent an entire afternoon digging a hole in the sand with your little brother, or building a fort in the woods, or jumping your bike over that huge bump in the sidewalk on the next block.  Remember what it was like to feel safe and alive, lost in a pleasurable activity without guilt or fear.  Sure: children play in part to practice at being adults and learn what they need to know in order to mature and flourish.  But perhaps adults can play to practice at being kids, learning what we need to know in order to do all things with a sense of gratitude and curiosity, joy and expectation.

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