Play Hints At Who We Are

 

play reveals who we are

“In our play we reveal what kind of people we are.” ~Ovid

What is play? It has nothing to do with structure imposed by adults. Psychiatrist Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play, describes play as most basically “purposeless, repetitive, pleasurable, spontaneous actions.” Sometimes this is driven by curiosity and the urge to discover. Sometimes it is imaginative play. Sometimes it’s  rough and tumble play, the kind that necessarily puts the player at risk and involves anti-gravity moves such as jumping. This description is true whether we’re talking about puppies, otters, crows, or people.

The “higher” a species ranks in intelligence, the more they play.

A research team led by ethologists Robert and Johanna Fagan spent 15 years, many of them sitting in trees, studying how bears play in the wild. Of the bears they observed, the individuals that played more often as cubs and through adulthood lived longer and healthier lives. They also left behind more offspring.

A study of ground squirrels found those that played were more coordinated (a big deal for squirrels) and grew up to be more successful parents.

And we know a lot about the importance of play for rats. They even laugh (a rat version of laughter) when tickled.  Compelling research shows the more young rats actively played, the more rapidly their brains grew and their learning abilities increased. (The same correlations seem to be true for children’s play as well.)

Young creatures, including humans, play  has to do with movement and excitement. It’s a highly sensory way to experience socially important peaks and lows, winning and losing, threat and relief from threat. It helps participants learn to understand the intentions of others. It also lets them learn to handle stressors and practice different reactions,  gradually teaching them through experience to respond appropriately when they face much more demanding emotional and physical challenges later in life.

This is helpful to remember when kids are wrestling, climbing, chasing, running, giggling, tumbling, and making a mess. It’s even more helpful to remember when they’re arguing, grabbing, yelling, complaining, shrieking, and otherwise demonstrating that melodrama is inseparable from play. All of that physical and emotional energy is important practice for becoming reasonable, responsible adults.

why kids play fight

Play can also tell us a great deal about what’s forefront in children’s lives.

When my oldest child started kindergarten his play reflected the more authoritarian structure he was adjusting to and interactions with the different people he encountered each morning. He balanced that by seeking out more time in the garage hammering nails into scrap wood, more time riding his bike, and more time playing Legos than before he’d started school —- all reassuringly favorite activities to discharge the day’s emotions. And he and his best friend Sara started playing “school bus.” They sat in chairs or on the ground behind each other while acting out what they observed on their daily bus rides. They took turns quite politely repeating some pretty awful slurs they heard from kids on the bus, and then repeating back the driver’s rather belligerent responses. Their play not only helped them work through their experiences, it helped us alert the school to what was happening.

Play can also inform us about temperament, innate abilities, and about where different individuals find joy.   Here are two examples, taken from Free Range Learning of children expressing who they are through play.

A little girl creates chaos with her toys. She won’t put blocks away with other blocks nor put socks in her dresser drawer. As a preschooler she creates groupings that go together with logic only she understands. One such collection is made up of red blocks, a striped sock, spoons, and marbles. She sings to herself while she rearranges these items over and over. The girl is punished when she refuses to put her puzzles away in the correct box or her tea set dishes back together. She continues making and playing with these strangely ordered sets but hides them to avoid getting in trouble. This phase passes when she is about nine years old. Now an adult, she is conducting post-doctoral studies relating to string theory. She explains her work as a physicist has to do with finding common equations among disparate natural forces.

A young boy’s high energy frustrates his parents. As a preschooler he climbs on furniture and curtain rods, even repeatedly tries to scale the kitchen cabinets. When he becomes a preteen he breaks his collarbone skateboarding. He is caught shoplifting at 13. His parents are frightened when he says he “only feels alive on the edge.” Around the age of 15 he becomes fascinated with rock-climbing. His fellow climbers, mostly in their 20’s, also love the adrenaline rush that comes from adventure sports but help him gain perspective about his responsibility to himself and other climbers. His ability to focus on the cliff face boosts his confidence on the ground. At 19 he is already certified as a mountain search and rescue volunteer. He is thinking of going to school to become an emergency medical technician.

Stuart Brown says that looking back at our own unique “play history” can tell us a great deal about ourselves. He asks us to let ourselves drift back to our earliest and most resonant play memories. He suggests asking older family members about what we played when we were very young.  He goes on to say,

Explore backwards as far as you can go to the most clear, joyful, playful image that you have whether it’s with a toy, on a birthday, or on a vacation. And begin to build to build from the emotion of that into how that connects with your life now. ..

How to rediscover play if you’ve let it slide? Move your body. Dig up your memories of what brought you pleasure as a child. Take cues from “the experts” — the children in your life today. Do what makes you happy, and what transports you beyond a sense of the clock, your schedule, that deadline — beyond time.

As my dear friend and mentor Bernie DeKoven reminds us,

Playfulness is a practice that shapes our souls. It connects us. It is an act of belief in ourselves, a vehicle whose wheels are powered by our faith in life, bringing us to places of wonder, moments of joy. It is almost the last thing to leave us before we leave all together forever.

We Could All Use a Good Laugh

 

laughter is the cure, global understanding

“Sound of Laughter” by Hersley

We’re primed to practice the generative power of laughter from our earliest years. As babies interact with their mothers, their laughter quadruples from three months of age to their first birthday. Interestingly, mothers laugh nearly twice as often in these interactions. By a baby’s second year, they laugh nearly as long and often as their mothers do, meaning the more mom laughs the more her child laughs!

Some scientists believe laughter was a precursor to language itself.  As neuroscientist  Jaak Panksepp explains,

“Neural circuits for laughter exist in very ancient regions of the brain, and ancestral forms of play and laughter existed in other animals eons before we humans came along with our ‘ha-ha-has’ and verbal repartee.”

Throughout life, from childhood on, most of our laughter comes from social interactions.   Studies tell us we laugh 30 times more often in the presence of others than we do when we’re alone. Since laughter does so many good things for us, body and soul, it motivates us to spend time with the very people who make us happy. What a lovely feedback loop — instigating, reacting to, and inspiring more laughter  —- bonding us to each other through delight.

Smiles are contagious.

Kindness is contagious too.

So is laughter.

Laughter can even become an epidemic.  In 1962, three girls started giggling in  Kashasha, a small town in what’s now Tanzania. It spread to 95 students in their school, lasting for hours. Within two weeks, similar laugh attacks infected kids in the nearby towns of Nshamba and Bukoba. It continued to spread, closing 14 schools before quarantines were enacted. It took 18 months before the epidemic slowed.

(In rare cases, you can laugh yourself to death.)

I am serious about all sorts of issues and will discuss them with you to death (a worse death, I’m sure, than death by laughter).  But I’m also an unrepentant guffaw-er. I’m pretty sure this is a genetic condition, my very polite mother was also prone to fits of hilarity.  Like her, I am capable of laughing normally, but sometimes I end up shrieking and cackling.  Controlling such laughter is just about impossible. Once, as a teenager, I was swimming across a small lake with my friend Kathy. As we swam, we started laughing about how funny the other person looked swimming. Weakened by glee, we got to the point where we could only dog paddle in place. Seeing the other person dog paddling, wide-mouthed with laughter, made us laugh all the more. Soon we were barely able to keep our heads above water. After gulping too many mouthfuls of water, we finally staunched our laughter until we somehow managed to get ourselves onto dry land. There we lay exhausted, aware we’d nearly drowned, laughing again.

I mostly laugh about my own awkwardness (plenty of material there) like falling , eating a mouthful of dirt, and accidentally snorting in a stranger’s face.  Snorting, by the way, got me laughing crazily the other day. For some reason Olivia was snorting with joy as Sam tossed her on the couch and for some reason that snorting set me off. I was trying to video this, but you can barely hear her snorts over my ridiculous shrieks.

Laughter’s contagious nature is more evidence that we humans are connected across all so-called boundaries. I’m writing about laughter today because my family has had a tough time lately and so has our country and so has our world. So I’ll leave you with these timely words by dear soul and wise sage, Bernie DeKoven. who writes in a post titled “Play, Laughter, Health, and Happiness,”

Playing and laughing together, especially when we play and laugh in public, for no reason, is a profound, and, oddly enough, political act.

Political, because when we play or dance or just laugh in public, people think there’s something wrong with us. It’s rude, they think. Childish. A disturbance of the peace.

Normally, they’d be right. Except now. Now, the peace has been deeply disturbed – everywhere, globally. And what those grown-ups are doing, playing, dancing, laughing in public is not an act of childish discourtesy, but a political act – a declaration of freedom, a demonstration that we are not terrorized, that terror has not won.

A Frisbee, in the hands of people in business dress in a public park, is a weapon against fear. A basketball dribbled along a downtown sidewalk, is a guided missile aimed at the heart of war. Playing with a yo-yo, a top, a kite, a loop of yarn in a game of cats’ cradle, all and each a victory against intimidation. Playing openly, in places of business, in places where we gather to eat or travel or wait, is a gift of hope, an invitation to sanity in a time when we are on the brink of global madness.

Yes, I admit, I am a professional advocate of public frolic. I am a teacher in the art of fun. I hawk my playful wares every time I get a chance, with every audience I can gather, war or peace.

But this is a unique moment in our evolution. America is no longer bounded by its boundaries. We are tied into a network of terror that crosses national divisions…

And I believe that we have far more powerful weapons than any military solution can offer us. And I believe that those weapons can be found in any neighborhood playground or toy store.

Like for play, laughter is also a political act, a declaration that fear and terrorism have not won. Incontrovertible evidence that there is hope.

May laughter’s gifts lift us all, together.

Flee To An Inner Playground

staying sane with baby won't stop crying

Image: CC by 2.0 Ben_Kerckx

I cannot bear to hear a baby cry. I feel it right to my core. But in the first year of my daughter’s life she suffered from a chronic illness that caused a lot of crying. And I mean a lot. Her wails were heartrending, made all the worse by how little I could do to ease her misery. We got through the days with kangaroo parenting and lots of nursing, but, because it was so hard for her to sleep, our nights were unspeakably long.

For hours each evening she could stay asleep only if I walked while holding her against my shoulder. I’d circle the dining room table, looking out the dark windows hoping for the momentary distraction of a passing car. The minutes went by in slow motion. My arms were cramped and my body beyond weary. Finally, in the early hours of the morning, she usually calmed enough that I could slump into bed against a pile of pillows where she slept on my chest and I slept too.

During those hours of walking I couldn’t watch TV, even dim light kept her awake much longer. (Science now tells us that as little as a light shining on the back of our knees is enough to change our circadian clocks.) So I resorted to the only distractions available: the ones I could play inside my head.

Now that my daughter is grown (and healthy!) I’d nearly forgotten those mental games until I listened to my friend Bernie DeKoven’s marvelous new recording,  Recess for the Soul, which is packed with ideas for playing on what Bernie calls the Inner Playground.

Bernie describes undergoing a procedure at the dentist, saying,

Under certifiably physical duress, my mighty mind can take me away from the all too personal now. I can, instead, should I so choose, talk to myself, joke with myself, fool myself into some semblance of squirmlessness, even when the world wherein I found myself proves so profoundly squirmworthy.

I wish I’d heard of Bernie’s tactics back then…

I’ll share a few of the games I played on my own inner playground. These weren’t clever by any means, simply last-resort mechanisms to keep a desperately tired and worried parent going. If you’re at the end of your rope for whatever reason, head on in to your inner playground.  (For a much wider range of mental games, refer to Bernie’s recording.)

Betting On Myself

I’d tell myself that I could make it another 15 minutes without looking at the clock. Then I’d try to gauge how long that time period might be before checking the time. If I gave in and looked too soon, losing the bet, I’d lengthen the next time period, not letting myself look for another 20 minutes. And so on.

Reconstructing

As I walked back and forth in my dark home in the wee hours, I’d challenge myself to reconstruct something in detail. One night it might be a book plot. Another night a childhood memory and another night a good time I’d had with friends. It wasn’t easy, but good mental exercise. It also, I’m sure, was a relief to so fully visit another realm in my mind.

Absurd Movie Screenplays

I’d mentally write screenplays, the more absurd the better. If I found myself with anything resembling a normal plot line I’d joggle it up by adding a talking giraffe, a time travel bathtub, or something equally implausible. The exhausted mind is actually pretty creative, maybe because logic is for people who get enough sleep.

Hidden Camera

When I was totally at the end of my rope and could find no way to ease my baby’s misery, I got to the point where I longed to set her down gently and fling myself out the window. So I’d pretend there was some omnipresent camera watching me. Somehow that made it easier to keep going, as if I were acting in a play about a very patient mother. When I was really tired, I pretended the film being made that moment was the only evidence that God might see of my life. I know, dire.

It wasn’t as if I didn’t want to be fully present with my daughter, I did. But there’s only so much mindfulness one can bear after hours of walking a sick child. Don’t wait until you’re ready to toss yourself out the window. Play as wildly as you’d like on your own inner playground.

(And if you’ve got techniques to help any of us through miseries like sitting on a plane with take-off delayed, waiting for the jury to come to a verdict, or pacing the floor of a surgical ward please share them with us!)

A Free Guide to Being Human

fun expert, make life fun, fun at work,

This volume should really be titled A Guide to Being Human. I recommend you read only a page or two at a time. Let it sink in. Apply it. Revel in it.

It’s authored by game designer and deep fun theorist Bernie DeKoven. I got the chance to interview Bernie last year and immediately found myself wishing he were my next door neighbor. (I still do.) For 40-something years Bernie has been promoting playfulness. He was instrumental in the New Games movement and a pioneer in computer game design. He’s developed games for the likes of Lego, Ideal Toy Company, Mattel Toys, and Children’s Television Workshop. He’s collected little-known games, created new ones, researched the value of fun, and organized all sorts of play events.

The book is actually titled A Playful Path and it’s jam-packed with awesomeness. It’s made up of tools and ideas to inspire the possibility-building, wide-open glory of playfulness. DeKoven writes,

Fun is at the heart of things—of things like family, marriage, happiness, peace, community, health; things like science and art, math and literature; like thinking and imagining, inventing and pretending.

Sure, the playful path can enhance relationships, advance careers, and  promote health. It can also help us deepen into who we truly are, beyond the limits of rules and score-keeping. As DeKoven calls it, becoming “embiggened.”

For adults, following a playful path is a practice, something you put into practice, and then practice some more. When you were a kid, it wasn’t a practice. It was what you did, always. You had to be reminded not to be playful. And you were. O, yes, you were. But now that you have become what you, as a kid, called “an adult,” you find that play is something you have to remind yourself to do, playful is something you have to allow yourself to be.

And once you again take up that playful path you knew so well, you discover that it’s different, you’re different. You can play much more deeply than you could before. You are stronger, you understand more, you have more power, better toys. You discover that you, as a playful being, can choose a different way of being. A way of being as large as life. A way of being you, infinitely.

Written in short one to two page segments, A Playful Path is perfect to read on an as-needed basis, sort of an antidote to all the not-fun that drags us down.  A Playful Path is an entertaining book. It’s also wise, true, and entirely useful. Just like play. Get your copy in paperback or as a free e-book.

For more Bernie in your life you can keep up with him on G+ and Facebook, stay current with his blog. and read MIT Press’ re-release of his groundbreaking book, The Well-Played Game: A Player’s Philosophy. Oh, and be sure to bookmark his collection of games!

Bernie DeKoven, A Playful Path,

Play is how we have learned to learn. Instructions? We don’t need no stinkin’ instructions.  Bernie DeKoven

A Slanty Line Approach To Learning

slanty line principle, Bernie DeKoven,

Image: feigenfrucht.deviantart.com)

 Playfulness guru Bernie DeKoven is an amazing guy. His new book A Playful Path brims with wisdom and an irrepressible spirit of delight. It’s so good I think everyone needs a copy as a reference book on How To Be Human. 

He cheerfully agreed to let me publish this guest post. Thanks Bernie! 

Bernie DeKoven wonders if you’re having fun (deepfun.com)

Bernie suggests having fun (deepfun.com)

There’s an elegant model, called the “Slanty Line” principle, developed by physical educator Muska Mosstonxiv that puts the concept of individually negotiable challenge very clearly into practice.

If you’re a Phys Ed teacher, one of the things you do with kids is help them develop their high-jumping skills. In “non-adaptive” Phys Ed, the way you did this was to hold jumping contests. You’d hang a high bar horizontal to a certain height and everybody would have to take a turn jumping over the high bar. If they succeeded, they’d get to the next round, and the high bar would be raised. The contest would continue until only one person was left. That person would be lavishly praised as the one who established the high jump record for the class.

The problem with this kind of competitive incentive structure is that the kids who need the most practice are the kids who get to jump the least often. The worse they are at jumping, the sooner they’re out of the game.

Try this. Make the high bar diagonal rather than parallel to the ground. This lets everybody jump over any part of the high bar and take as many turns as they want. And what do you get?

Instead of the teacher, each kid sets his/her own challenge. The jumpers who are not so good at jumping can still jump across the high bar as many times as anyone else, they just cross at a lower point. And, when they feel the need to increase the challenge they can just station themselves at a higher part of the high bar.

No one is eliminated. No one is given prizes. Everyone wins. Repeatedly.

Slant the high bar and the authority rolls right out of the hands of the teacher, out of, actually, any one body’s hands, into everybody’s. The challenge (jump as high as you can, and then jump higher) remains the same, but the challenger has changed. It’s not the Phys Ed instructor who increases the challenge, it’s the kids, themselves: the kids as a group, and the kids, individually.

A challenge that is determined by the individual player is more complex, because it requires “reflective action.” The player must evaluate not only his or her own success, but also the success of the challenge. And even though kids can get very competitive, the challenge is ultimately self-selected, ultimately guided by sheer fun.

Without an external evaluator, each kid can devise and revise the challenge. Of course, evaluation is going on, and whether the competition is inner-directed or outer-directed, the fact is that the teacher, your fellow jumpers (both higher and lower), your inner referee; somebody is evaluating your performance, challenging you to challenge your self.

Ideally, each kid should be seeking out his/her personal level of flow, driven by the natural desire for complexity into a deeper and healthier engagement with the relationships between the human body and gravity. But, in fact, there’s still something about the way the task is framed that draws the kids apart.

Even though nobody’s eliminated, even though everyone’s free to increase or decrease the challenge, even though you don’t even have to take turns, the fact is that the challenge is directed towards the individual. With the focus on individual performance, on how high who jumps; the relationship is fundamentally the same.

And what’s worse (or more complex), someone might be attaching meaning to your performance, as if how high you can jump says something about your character!

So, what if we completely redirected the challenge, away from the individual and towards the group? What if the entire class tried to jump holding hands? Or with their arms around each other’s shoulders? Or each other’s waist?

Shifting the focus of the game away from what they can do individually (ME), we focus, also, on what the kids can do together (WE) – on collective as well as individual performance.

To jump the Slanted Bar together, we need to make sure that each individual kid is going to make it. Even though the challenge is to the group, there are still plenty of challenges to the individual player. Each has to be stationed at the appropriate part of the high bar: too high and you might not get over, too low, you might make it harder for someone else. Each has to be able to ask for help, and provide help. Preparing for the big jump, synchronizing the preparatory, simultaneous squat, each individual is doubly challenged. And yet, not competing. Same slant, same task, but fundamentally shifted experience.

Raising the high bar, you intensify the competitive relationship between the diminishing few. The game, internally and externally, becomes one of increasingly isolated MEs (the “winners”) against an increasingly disempowered WE.

Slant the High Bar, and the relationship relaxes, becomes supportive, empowering, healthy, ME\WE.

self-regulating learning,

Image: excess1ve.deviantart.com