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What Is Play? (rewrite)

Samantha Plate's picture

Samantha Plate

Play In The City


What Is Play? (Re-Write)

We seemed to have taken a wrong turn somewhere. Walking down the streets of Philadelphia, my group and I were in search of mosaics. At an intersection we randomly chose to go right, hoping this would take us the correct way. It did not. The street soon hit a dead end. While trying to decide where to go next, the sound of laughing children caught my attention. We were right near a playground full of children who had just gotten out of school. 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.  

What is play? This is a question that many individuals have tried to answer. Theorists, psychologists, and scientists are always trying to pin “play” down and give it a strict definition. Play can be specified as simple play, critical play, and deep play- all of which have been important to our studies of play in the city and all of which have very flexible and overlapping definitions. As a child plays it seems so simple and natural, but it is actually very complex. 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.

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. This connection to learning reminds me of critical play. While not strictly critical play, as it does not question “social, cultural, political, or even personal themes that function as alternates to popular play spaces” like Flanagan proposes it should, it involves thinking and learning, the play is serving a purpose rather than being a simple fun activity (Flanagan, 6). Through critical play the child is growing and learning with every step he takes.

Only a few minutes later I began to see what resembled deep play at work on the jungle gym. 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. She is independent and caught up in her own world. This may be the most perfect example of deep play. It barely contains any of the aspects that Ackerman thinks is required, but yet it truly is “the ecstatic form of play” (Ackerman). The smile on the little girl’s face told me that she was fully engaged in her perfect fantasy and there is no doubt in my mind that this was truly deep play.

We then decided to get a better vantage point and climbed the stairs to the highest part of the jungle gym. I looked down from my position and saw two children playing on a tire swing. The child on the swing was lying down and holding 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. There was nothing special about this. There was nothing that made it critical play or deep play, it was an act of simple play. So much of our focus is spent looking at play that is special, that has a purpose. But in doing this we miss out on the simple play that children have all the time. Play that is free and fun and nothing else. Maybe we can learn something from these to kids about what is important to focus on.

If there is one thing that I learned in this course it is that every type of play has something to offer us, but what is truly important is play itself. We must make sure to keep it in our lives. In the very beginning of the year we read the article “Taking Play Seriously” that questioned whether or not we as a society are losing play. And what a loss that would be. Play “is the essence of good. Watch children at play, and the benefits are so obvious: just look at those ecstatic faces, just listen to those joyful squeals. Stuart Brown alluded to it in his library talk last month. ‘‘Look at life without play, and it’s not much of a life,’’ he told the audience” (Henig). So the next time you are feeling down and worried about all the little things in life, take some time to play, I know I will.

Works Cited

Ackerman, Diane. Deep Play. New York: Random House, 1999. Chapter 1.

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

Hengig, Robin. “Taking Play Seriously”, New York Times (Feb. 17, 2008).