Play is more than just fun and games, but over analysis could be killing our mammalian connection with play and community.
What is the Purpose of Play?
Let me ask you a question in return: Which kid? At which moment? At what stage?
I have heard people say “Kids play because (fill in the blank)” so often. They say that the purpose of play is to prepare ourselves, and build resilience. They say that purpose of play is to build skills. They say that humans and animals play to relieve stress, and form bonds. Some say that play is just about self exploration and fun.
Equally as often, I hear people say that “play is purposeless“. In my experience, view, and estimation it seems a bit more complicated than a single sentence answer.
At this point, I have played with thousands of kids from preschool through college age – in gyms, parking lots, forests, beaches, fields, courts, classrooms, homes. I have observed even more than I have played with directly. Further, I have had many many conversations with kids about play. No, not scientifically. With great interest. I observe my 2 year old every day now. And I still can’t purport to know why every kid plays in every moment. As I go further in this journey, I care less and less why, and more THAT they get to do it.
I see a variety of reasons, both obvious and possible, that my daughter and other kids play, depending on the situation and timing. I see moments that seem like purposelessness. I say “seem like”, because even that may be a projection. We may be projecting “purposelessness” from our own egos. As adults that feel the need to “know”, we often assume that which we cannot see, or cannot be communicated to us does not exist. What we are seeing as “complete absence” may simply be multifaceted, murky, or actually absent.
Let me give some illustrative examples:
Throwing a ball
A lot of the possible “reasons” depend on where a young one is on the developmental continuum and on context. A child might be playing with a ball to learn to do more with the ball. They could be playing with the ball because they admire a friend’s skill with the ball and want to match it. They could be playing with the ball in order to join a group that likes playing with the ball. If the child is very young, he may be playing with the ball simply because they like the texture. He may play with the ball because the last time, he got an attentive smile and that felt good. Or two kids may play with a ball, and one plays with it more because of the smile when they happened to do something cool. The purpose of play, or purposelessness of play, may be different depending on who, what, and when.
Climbing on things
When my daughter started climbing up the stairs on her own, her purpose was quite apparent to us. How are we certain? Because later she told us why. “I wan’ DO it! Self!” That’s pretty clear. And she plays around with all kinds of different ways to get up and down stairs. She wants to try it again. She experiments with strategies. Is this “purposeless”? Is this done purely for the sake of stair climbing? Not quite. She desires independence and mobility. She also desires the status of being a “big girl”. Again, how do I know? Because she tells me so. “I a big girl?” When kids climb on a structure are they just exploring the structure or trying to be like the bigger kids? It can be quite complicated. Why do you climb on things?
Juggling a soccer ball
Our reasons can be so complicated. The kid that chooses to learn to juggle a soccer ball, and “freestyle” with it. Is it purposeless? Who knows. I mean, do they want to join a team? If not, do we call it purposeless? What if they received praise when someone else watched them? What if they simply like trying new things? What if they just like how the foot vibrates when it contacts the ball?
I realized as an older adolescent that I gravitated toward martial arts and tennis because I just love hitting stuff. But I got so much more out of those things. I got stronger and faster. I got a skill that I use to physically interact with other people who I vibe with. We all vibe because they like hitting stuff too.
I don’t know that any of the above qualifies as having no purpose in doing something, or having no goal beyond the thing itself. Here is what I can guarantee you: No matter what the purpose is, if freedom to explore is allowed and autonomy is encouraged, children and adolescents will build skill, resilience, and a sense of deep joy in doing. They will be more likely, I believe, to build loving connections with others and with nature. These are all not only good things, but necessary things. Would you disagree?
So, maybe we should talk less (not none) about the purpose or goal of play. Maybe we should talk more about how to facilitate, encourage, allow its presence in the lives of our children and adolescents. Maybe we should concentrate more on creating its presence in our own lives as a living example to them.
What are we afraid of?
One side is afraid of everything having an adult-prescribed “purpose”, because this seems like the path to exploitation and rigidity, since we attach money and status to purpose. I believe that the best way to solve this, paradoxically, is to relax as much as we expect others to, and continue to show the presence of play. People know intuitively that they want and need it. I believe that the more people see true, soulful representations of play – the more they will demand it. So do it more, share it more. Analyze it just a bit less (not none).
Those representing the other side of the play conversation are often afraid of being seen as silly or frivolous. Oh, come off it. You all already know you’re silly and frivolous. You bought an iphone when you could have fed the hungry. Relax and play, or I will tell everyone how silly you are.
Some final questions for you: Why are we spending so much time and energy trying to justify, and re-justify play, when every single mammalian species has been observed engaging in play? Why are we still spending more money and time on analyzing it than doing it, showing it, and sharing it?
If you need me I will be over here building and maintaining this bridge…Originally posted on Dr Kwame Brown.com Feature photo: stevendepolo/Flickr