Play

Think of it like this: there are forms of interaction with people which have a direct and serious instrumental purpose: I am here to teach you Greek; I would like to order a goulash; please dig that ditch; what have you done with my socks? And there are all other forms of interaction: the reason we are talking about Barcelona is because we happen to be having sandwich lunch together and we are not strangers: if we were baboons we might do a spot of mutual grooming. If they could speak, they would call it “play”.

Play resists definition, as one expert on the subject, Stuart Brown, protested on being asked for one . . .

I adopted my usual academic stance. “I don’t really use an absolute definition,” I said. “Play is so varied, it’s preverbal, preconscious.”P24

. . . but in Lean Logic, it consists of all our interactions other than instrumental ones. And even the instrumental ones are rarely quite free of it: at the checkout you still, quite often, get a hallo.

It comes in many varieties. There is no need to list them, but it may be useful to think about them as located approximately on two dimensions, ranged either between cooperation and competition (Table I), or between body and mind (Table II).P25

 

Play Types I: Cooperation and Competition

Cooperation
Weak Strong
Competition Weak Piano

Reading

Model building

Attunement with
child or belovedChoir/dance
Strong Chess/fencing

Gambling

Debating

Team games

Rough-and-tumble

Sparring

Placings are typical but most could be anywhere on the table.
“Competition” here includes soft competition such as (with infants and children) tickling and one-a-side football.

 

Play Types II: Body and Mind

Body
Weak Strong
Mind Weak Talking to the dog

Window-shopping

Staring out to sea

Sparring

Rough-and-tumble

Gym/jogging

Strong Chess

Story/make-believe

Conversation/jokes

Object play

Music

Team games

Placing are a matter of emphasis: all forms of play use both body and mind.

 

All the combinations are interesting in their various ways, but especially important to the values of Lean Logic are the blends of both strong cooperation and competition, and strong presence of both body and mind.

Those strong blends are close to the essence of play. The blend of strong competition and strong cooperation is a medium in which the identity of the individual in society is worked out and continually refreshed; and the strong presence of both body and mind is about becoming a person in the first place.

Now, to put these play-types into context, here are seven things which we may think of play doing for us, or helping us to do for ourselves:

 

1. Becoming a person

Play has a critical role in the process by which the brain becomes active and competent, as distinct from simply a collection of neurons with potential. Together with sleep, play practices, strengthens, differentiates and tests the circuitry by using it and linking it up with corresponding responses in the body and the emotions. In this sense it makes the person—developing imagination and autonomy; a specific, unique, set of capabilities; the freedom to respond, to feel, to invent and to interpret—the joined-up mind and body whose absence, and intense presence, is discussed in Spirit.P26

In a deeper sense, becoming a person is about developing the powers of empathy. You can, in a sense, feel the other person’s pain or joy. That sounds a little bit pious but, when it is missing, it becomes intensely real and, in a sense, the ultimate curse: it is the road to cruelty (since the person does not feel what the other person feels), to ignorance (since the person who never speaks the truth never believes what she is told), and to loneliness (since the person does not recognise that there is another person there, so the possibility of emotional attachment does not arise). The significance of play as the maker of people is indispensable and beyond measure, and the consequences of its absence are devastating. The psychologist Bruce Perry writes,

The acts of holding, rocking, singing, feeding, gazing, kissing and other nurturing behaviours involved in caring for infants and young children are bonding experiences. Factors crucial to bonding include time together, face-to-face interactions, eye contact, physical proximity, touch and other primary sensory experiences such as smell, sound and taste. . . . It should be no surprise that holding, gazing, smiling, kissing, singing and laughing all cause specific neurochemical activities in the brain. These neurochemical activities lead to normal organisation of brain systems that are responsible for attachment.

Children without touch, stimulation and nurturing can literally lose the capacity to form any meaningful relationships for the rest of their lives.P27

The market economy’s success in making people in this sense is mixed. Play with young children adds nothing to Gross Domestic Product (unless you get someone else to do it for you—but then the bonding can get complicated). But worry not, for the task of trying to repair the wreckage when the unplayed-with arrive at school shows up as an important contributor to GDP, and as an equal-opportunity job provider. A pity, then, that the Lean Economy won’t be able to afford it; it might be forced to prevent the problem arising in the first place.

 

2. Play as teacher

Play teaches difficult skills. One of the ways in which it does this is by easing the emotional pressure. There is a rule in the psychology of learning called the Yerkes-Dodson law, which says that, if we are trying to do something difficult, we will tend to do it less well if our arousal, or motivation, is too great: we do better if we are cool about it. So the context of play is helpful, reducing drive, anxiety and the potential for frustration.P28

The influence of play on learning is illustrated by many studies, including observation of the creative ingenuity of young children. In one example, children aged three to five were given the task of fishing a prize from a box that had been placed out of reach. To do that, they had to combine the length of two sticks by clamping them together. Beforehand, they were given one of four types of training: demonstration of the principle of clamping two sticks together, or practice in fastening clamps in single sticks, or an opportunity to watch the experimenter carry out the whole task, or simply being allowed to play around with the materials. The children who had played with the materials did as well in solving the problem as the ones who had been given the full demonstration of clamping sticks together, and better than the other groups. Crucially, the opportunity to play had switched on their willingness to think about the problem when they were stuck:

What was striking about the play group was their tenacity in sticking with the task so that even when they were poor in their initial approach, they ended by solving the problem. . . . They were playing.P29

And play of that kind—object play—is fundamental to the process of switching on the current between the mind and the body. It teaches the child about weight, texture and balance, in the course of which the child discovers whether she is right-or left-handed.P30 As the child psychologist Otto Weininger writes,

Play helps children to make use of their growing muscular skills and helps them co-ordinate the developing muscle systems, both gross motor movements and fine co-ordination. . . . Play increases the sensory input which, in turn, increases cognitive awareness of the environment. Children who are free to explore see, hear, feel, touch and sense more of the world around them become practised in noticing and being aware of their environment; they have more fuel for thought. . . . Play is the essence of learning for children.P31

 

3. Learning community membership

And play is central, and in some cases indispensable, as a means of teaching and reinforcing the conventions and skills of citizenship and of being part of a community. Games of mothering, and mimicry of skills and roles, are almost universal. In some societies, the message communicated by the games could scarcely be more pointed. Children in the Tangu tribe in New Guinea, for instance, play a game called taketak where the object is to share out food fairly. There is no winner or loser; the aim is to tie.P32 In Switzerland the game of marbles’ famous potential for flexibility in its rules is taken towards its extreme with the players deciding the rules by mutual discussion and consent, then codifying them, and then sticking to them—but still being able to amend them on one player’s initiative if he or she can enlist general opinion on his or her side.P33

And, of course, community membership is not only about cooperating. It is about coping with non-cooperation and surviving offence. Insult plus play equals friendship. Sometimes even love.

 

4. Inclusiveness

Play is inclusive. The young and old, and whole families with relatively little in common other than mutual goodwill, can play board games, do music, listen to stories together. The social historian Richard Sennett writes,

A child aged four is in ordinary social situations going to be excluded from much that a child aged six can and wants to do. In play, however, he gets the opportunity to interact with her as an equal, and so explore a kind of social situation he otherwise could not know.P34

Indeed without some common forum for play, such as music, sport, or conversation at meals, it is hard for a family to find any frame of reference in which they can interact as a group. And sport is well established as a defuser of potential tension, as in the Commonwealth (formerly Imperial) tradition of cricket, or the now-traditional Whitby football match between Real Gothic FC—a scratch team selected from the pale, near-death Goths who gather for their biannual celebration in the town where Dracula reached England—and Athletico Gazette, a team of concerned locals drawn from the staff of the local newspaper.P35

 

5. Competition, cooperation and bonding

Play opens up the possibility of that crucial combination of accomplishments in human and animal relationships: competition and cooperation. To see the significance of this, consider the case of a primate group such as gelada baboons, whose politics is substantially organised around the existence of—and competition to replace—the alpha male. On approaching puberty, the young males are excluded from the privileged inner circle of the troupe, and in most cases live among the other males on the periphery. There they live their double lives consisting both of competition—expressed in a range of play routines, of which mock fights are a vital part, since some of those males will in due course be taking on the alpha male—and cooperation—no less important, because, being at the outside edge of the troupe, it is their task to warn of dangers and to deal with them, to come to each other’s aid, to present a united front and to conserve the territory.P36

Play is their medium. For the males in that characteristic and ambivalent situation—rivalry and alliance, battle and bonding—competition and cooperation are the grammar of their coexistence.P37

 

6. A source of order

Play is often disorderly, but it is bounded. When it is over, order is restored.

Medieval society was to a large extent kept intact by its busy diary of play and carnival: the twelve days of celebratory misrule over Christmas, the boy bishops, Plough Monday, Candlemas, Valentine, Shrove, Passion, Palm, Easter, Hocktide, May Day, Whitsun, Rogation, St John, St Peter, Harvest, the season of fairs, hobby horses, Martinmas, All Saints . . . you do not cooperate in this amount of festival without getting on with each other rather well. That is capitalism for you, in another form—a wealth of social capital, potential for cooperation in more serious matters. As Johan Huizinga writes:

Play community generally tends to become permanent even after the game is over—and “permanent community” means “order”. Play creates order, is order. Play demands order absolute and supreme. The least deviation from it “spoils the game”, robs it of its character, and makes it worthless. The profound affinity between play and order is perhaps the reason why play seems to lie to such a large extent in the field of aesthetics. Play has a tendency to be beautiful. It may be that this aesthetic factor is identical with the impulse to create orderly form, which animates play in all its aspects.P38

 

7. Play for its own sake—and for the sake of something else, which it is hard to be certain about

Play is for fun, for exuberant self-expression; it is the content of carnival; it lifts the spirits; it prevents boredom; it contains and neutralises aggression; it releases endorphins. It bridges the distance to another person; it encounters. Love explores another country; play does so by invitation only. It may be formal (bound by explicit rules and within agreed boundaries of time and place), or informal (where these restraints are implicit and flexible, or the rules may be invented for a moment of fantasy, benign insult or humour). The rules of play make it uninhibited: you can do and say things—aggressive or insulting things, for instance—which would be out of the question except in the shadow-world of play; aspects of personality which would never otherwise have been suspected, are discovered or displayed. Play manifests the person; it is intrinsic to the expressiveness of the public sphere.P39

So this is a moment to step back from it, not think about it too much, and acknowledge play as its own thing. We are familiar with the reasonings of science, the earnest explanations of behaviour in terms of natural selection and trophic (feeding) systems. But, as the naturalist Richard Mabey suggests, we may get closer to understanding play by not trying so hard. Animals do it because they enjoy it. And that, Mabey tells us, is how it eventually seemed to field biologist Professor Bernd Heinrich after five years of meticulous analysis of the behaviour of ravens while at lunch on a coyote-killed sheep. They yell out to others to join them, roll on their backs in the snow, flutter in it, kick it and slide in it. After evaluating and rejecting all the hypotheses available to him from the sciences of behaviourism and natural selection, he settled for the obvious. They were doing what all young creatures do at feast times. They were . . .

. . . having fun.P40

Perhaps even birdsong, along with all its territorial tasks, is at heart . . .

. . . a purely emotional outburst, an outpouring of sheer aliveness, and without referential meaning. In which case it is genuinely closer to music than language.P41

And Mabey observes an egret (heron) playing with a large flock of a quite different species—lapwings—matching their wingbeats and swoons, their every move, in a wildly gratuitous celebration of life . . .

Was it seeking reassurance, or company, or just an outing in the sun? At times it seems as if the whole company of nature, ourselves included, is simply at play.P42

 

And yet, play is fragile and is not in good shape at present. It does exist to a weakened extent in professional sport, but even there the aim of winning is increasingly taken as the literal purpose of the event, rather than the enabling myth. Play relies on such critical cultural assets as trust, social capital and the humour which blunts insult, and it is in trouble when these are in decline. Insult and rough-and-tumble are now largely forbidden; carnival is subdued; if an invitation to play is rejected or misconstrued, if a joke goes wrong, there is shame or worse.

The market economy suffers from play-deprivation. But in the future we won’t be able to get by without it.

 

Related entries:

Encounter, Invisible Goods, Lean Education, Shifting Ground, Tactile Deprivation.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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