Opinion Process

To play or not to…oh, never mind.

It’s Monday, although where I’m sitting it’s close to being Tuesday. I write these playful prompts on Mondays, usually. I send an image or colouring-in to my mailing list and ask you to play with them. With me. I was about to do that this morning at about half past ten, when the irony struck me full force in that karate chop point on the side of my neck.

I wasn’t feeling one little bit playful.

This morning at half past ten I didn’t feel like putting the finishing touches to a banal post about play. I had half a dozen things I could have posted, and none of them felt right. I’m about to open the doors to my brand playgroup for the second and last time this year, and yet play was eluding me. My daughters were hovering, stage-right (no, we have no doors in our house) imploring me to play with them. The eldest has been on summer holidays forEVER and she was bored. The four-year old was driving her nuts.

‘Mum, can you play schools with us?’ they asked.

No, because I’m too busy writing about how important it is to play to a bunch of lovely people on the internet. Go away because I’m busy?


I went downstairs to the relative cool of the basement (it was already well over 30 degrees outside, and the outside play had been abortive). We played schools in our cool cave, except I gave them various tasks to do on the theme of darkness while I doodled and worked on a picture of an ice cream in 2 minute-bursts. They glued the various bats, owls, stars, rockets, poems and mirror-writing-a-four-year-old-does on to an old wooden board.

I liked their work better than mine. I wasn’t feeling very playful. In fact, I had a distinct unease about being the kind of person who writes about play and uses play in all its power in her work, and who is in real life rather bad at it. Bad at surrendering fully to it.

I scanned in my ice cream picture, hoping for some kind of magical imp to explode into Photoshop with a cha-cha-cha. I gave up and made lunch.

I let the girls watch some nonsense on the television while I tried very hard to pretend that I’d rather be sitting looking at a warm computer than curled up with an iced coffee reading a novel. I almost posted my vacuous blog post. I couldn’t.

I didn’t.

We had to go out. We climbed into the hot tin car and drove into town. There was a meeting I wanted to go to, and so my husband took the girls off to play while I sat in a hot apartment-cum-lecture room and listened (in Bulgarian) to a talk about Waldorf education (if you’d seen what school is like here, you’d quickly see how this Can Only Be A Good Thing).

Some of it went right over my head, and I’m into all that biodynamics and moon gardening, and Goethe and Rudolf Steiner (even though I’m slightly suspicious about some of his more way out stuff). But the bit I liked was when the nice man whose name I’ve already forgotten talked about how Steiner saw the phases of childhood.

In the first stage (pre-seven) the child learns through empathy, imitation of worthy examples and movement. The child plays. We were told, ‘it’s as if the child is asleep in this stage.’ The child learns that the world is good.

In the second stage (7-14) the child learns through story-telling, exploration, art and via positive role models. Of course all the nature and a bit of eurythmy is there. The child learns that the world is beautiful. ‘It’s as if the child were dreaming in this stage.’

After age fourteen, the young adult learns through his own thinking and judgement. He’s able to form his own conclusions, based on the foundation of play and exploration. ‘The child is awake now.’ The world is real.

Now, I didn’t go to any sort of alternative school. I went to a ‘normal’ school. I loved it. We played a lot, did lots of craft and drama. In the age before the internet, we went outside into the street and played and played and played.

So I should be able to play now, right?

In truth, it’s hard, because I’m not four or seven or twelve. The world is already real. I can’t always suspend reality long enough to lose myself in play. When I try to play with my daughters and I’m not making an effort, they call me out on it. They call bullshit on it.

The more effort I make, the more bullshit it gets. The more I let go and allow them to guide me to the ‘dreaming’ state, the easier it gets. The more beautiful the world gets.

There is always going to be resistance to play. Always. Although I know one or two adults who can pass effortlessly into a state of instantaneous five-year-old gleeful play, they are the exception. Put me in a circle and Kumbaya me and I’m going to start feeling pretty recalcitrant. Draw me a pretty picture and ask me what kind of ice-cream I’d be if I were an ice-cream and I might just feel like telling you to fuck off. Because it’s more complicated than that, isn’t it. How can you possibly distill a whole person, an ethos, a sensibility, a style, a bunch of values into a strawberry sorbet?

Well, you can’t. Not if that’s all you do. But it’s a start. It opens the door to play by just a sliver.

It’s a wormhole to play.

Play is a high-calibre kick-ass tool to hone your beliefs and suspend that niggly inner voice (you know, the one who keeps telling you to grow up and get a job). Play is powerful insight. It’s daubed on the outside of a Trojan horse concealing clarity and momentum.

Exactly why it’s important to do it. In context. Out of context. Unexpectedly. In a group forum. Unguardedly. Play. Not trite play. Not solemn play. Not highly-paid-consultant-speak play. Serious play.

How can we possibly work out what’s real and what’s meaningful if we haven’t first spent time in that dreamtime of exploration built on play?

I’m as bad at playing in real life as anyone. Some days, I don’t feel like playing at all.


If you were an ice cream, what flavour would you be?

By Jo

Writer, artist, builder

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