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What Is Play?

Samantha Plate's picture

Samantha Plate

Play In The City


What Is Play?

            What is play? This is the question that Mary Flanagan tries to answer. She is unable to come up with one specific definition. When asked to describe the reading in class I said “refreshingly indecisive”. The fact that Flanagan admits there are many definitions of play is truly refreshing. Theorists, psychologists, are scientists are always trying to pin “play” down and give it a strict definition. But play in itself defies definition- it is playful. Play sets all the rules and breaks them too. There are so many ways to describe this essential part of life, but no way to define it.

            I truly felt this idea that play cannot be defined on my last trip to Philadelphia. After visiting the mosaic garden my group and I decided to wander around the area, hoping to stumble upon more mosaics. We found ourselves walking in the “wrong” direction, but now I realize it was the right one. We ended up at a playground.

            Wanting to follow our course assignment of “play in the city” we decided to go in and join all the children having fun on the jungle gym. As we did so I found myself examining how everyone in the playground played differently. The children, their parents, and the three “adults” that happened to stumble in. Even though I’ve been 18 for nearly 6 months, this was the first time I felt more like an adult than a child. I have played on playgrounds countless times, but never have I had so much difficulty. I never felt so out of place on a playground before. We stuck out like 3 sore thumbs, the college girls carrying cameras in a sea full of children and parents. But once I let go of my self-consciousness, I was able to really play.

            “Play as learning” is the first category of play argued by Brian Sutton-Smith (Flanagan 4). As I observed the children playing around me I noticed how they were learning. There was little boy who was trying to follow his big sister’s travels up the spider web rope contraption. He held onto his father’s hand as he attempted to walk the tightrope of learning. And it was no easy task. Ellen, Claire, and I struggled quite a bit trying to maneuver our way around on these ropes. As I watched I learned too. I learned how to let go and let my feet take over for my mind.

            We then decided to get a better vantage point and climbed the stairs to the highest part of the jungle gym. From there I saw Sutton-Smith’s second category of play “play as power” (Flanagan 4). I looked down from my position and saw two children playing on a tire swing. While one would assume the child on the swing held the power it actually was made clear that the child pushing had all the power. The child on the swing had to lie down and hold on and the strong little girl pushed him as high as he could go. She would run forward and then jump up and hold onto the swing when it changed direction, getting a ride herself. It was clear that this little girl was in control of the situation and she was having fun with it.

            Before we got off the jungle gym we experienced Sutton-Smith’s third category of play “play as fantasy” (Flanagan 4). The same little girl who had led her brother up the rope maze was now leaving him in the dust as she began her fantasy game. I hear her tell her father who was on the ground about how she was the Queen and the jungle gym was her castle. Her father asks “What about your brother?” who was left crawling on the ground below. She asserts that he is too little to climb up and continues to play in her imaginary world by herself. After we climbed down from the jungle gym we decided to have our own imaginary play. The monkey bars were too low down for us to use properly so we decided to pretend. I filmed Ellen “swinging” on the monkey bars making sure not to get her feet in the shot as she dramatically walked the length of the bars swinging her arms from one to the other. Our own version of playing pretend.

            The last category Sutton-smith asserts is “play as self” (Flanagan 4). This category is a little harder to understand, but after spending just a little bit of time in the world of children and play I now realize what Sutton-Smith means. Play is about being yourself. It is about letting go of all the things you make yourself be in your daily life. It is about “’fun’, being with friends, and choosing freely” (Flanagan 4). Out of all the definitions of play that Flanagan presents, this seems the closest to play. Playing is freedom, and as we played amongst all the little children who had the rest of their lives ahead of them and not a care in the world, I finally felt free.

            While scientists and sociologists around the world argue over the definition of play, there is one thing they can all agree on. Play is essential. Every society around the world has forms of play. It is conducive to life. Play is one of the great uniters of the world. Just like love, we need play and seek it from a young age. As we grow up however, sometimes we forget the importance of play. This class has reminded me that play is the best medicine for stress and creates a happy and free atmosphere. Play comes in so many ways and forms, but the most important part of play is that it does not need to be defined only experienced. So go play.

Works Cited

Flanagan, Mary. "Introduction to Critical Play." Critical Play: Radical Game Design. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2009. 1-16. Print.


lksmith's picture

Samantha looks at Flanagan's

Samantha looks at Flanagan's definition of play and takes it apart, comparing it to her experiences at the playground. The essay is very well organized, moving through the aspects of play one at a time and demonstrating their true meaning. Her experieces suplement the text in a way that make it much more familiar and relatable. Although she says that play cannot be defined, she manages to create a very clear image of what play is and the importance of play in everyday life and in society. The essay is well structured and has a clear and direct focus that is well supported by Samantha's experiences at the playground.

pialikesowls's picture

Samantha brought in aspects

Samantha brought in aspects of her experience playing and compared it to Flanagan's different parts of play. While there was narrative, it wasn't the dominant part of the essay but actually helped support and shape Flanagan's argument as to what play is. The personal aspect combined with the more concrete definition of play was a good way to structure the essay. She starts off with a question that both she and Flanagan are trying to answer, though Samantha does it through playing on a playground and Flanagan attempts to achieve this through writing. The essay was very organized.