Like most kids of my generation, I did a lot of craft activities at primary school. Exploration had material form in a array of colours, textures, and media; narrated with stories full of animals, poetry, and music.
We were encouraged to act out stories using puppets
dream using collage, pencils, and dress ups,
and to learn to try, share, and wield messy tools with ever increasing levels of precision and un-messiness whilst covered in smocks.
Oh yeah. The practice of book reading by an adult. That’s probably not relevant – both maternal and ritual in form – an early theatrical experience of the where fourth-wall habits such as being an stationary/passive/attentive audience, the wondrous suspension of disbelief, and attunement to dramatic conflict, were inculcated. Actually, put that way, it was an early lesson in limiting our responses to media, but I enjoyed it and it felt like play.
Sure, we were also learning delimited tasks with assessable learning outcomes.
Like how to remember numbers and the alphabet, how to wield a pencil and perfect our cursive writing skills, how to rule lines, and how to put words together to create rudimentary sentences etc.
Indeed, these were tasks that I was often kept inside to redo, whilst the others who had finished these with speed and competency were allow to play outside. I hated them, and this practice of staying in to redo them. And being constantly tested to see if I was somehow retarded. Also being assessed with the furrowed brows of disappointed, the tones of ridicule, and my efforts that were not categorised as ‘creativity’ being labelled ‘failure’ rather than ‘process’. All that. The associated geographic and behavioural separations that I was subject to other’d me immensely.
But! Compared to my later education, I experienced my early education as a lovely balance between play; and ohmigodshit I am smallwithahyperactiveimafination and have to practice something that I hate.
Indeed, all baby mammals that I can think of play. Play is, prima facie, our mode of engaging with new things. Yet, somewhere between child and adult, in the world that I live in at least, play becomes discouraged. Shameful even. Evidence of an inferior way of being, inferior to an amalgam of dispositions that are less exuberant, more contained, and vastly more predictable. More ‘serious’.
And here I make a most unqualified statement: leaving those of us vulnerable to being uncritically affected with a more ‘adult’ disposition open to following those among us who, by whatever tools of resilience they have by virtue of structure and agency have absorbed, retain a sense of bravery and adventure.
What demarcates play from other types of endeavour? My first thought is that it is an affective response – a mental attitude with a strong visceral component (joy? Exhilaration?) – to new things. A willingness to stumble into the game as a happy fool just to experience it and understand it, generating discourse in motion rather than allowing criticism to precede and suffocate action.***
I recently observed a series of children’s workshops and noticed something that seems like a no-brainer. The smallest children participating were more likely to pay attention to things with bright colours; full body engagement, clear short term goals, and an engaging story. Hands on, sensorially rich, challenging, self indulgent, achievable, and with a great sense of fun (art in the sense of play/exploration perhaps, is self indulgent? Mores, mores.)
The older ones (and I mean 7-12), perhaps because their brain development rendered them more socially aware, seemed be interested in participating only when the task was challenging and achieveable enough to increase their skill set, and thus increase their cultural capital in appropriate accordance with their perceived age-based identity. But these dudes seemed to be individuals with a strong sense of personal autonomy.
But it was a revelation pertinent to my human journey at that time. I was feeling anxious and oppressed at university. I couldn’t write. I remained slow, because play and academic work had become classified in my mind as different things. And I felt like the message that came from the uni was that excellence is only valued if it is combined with the value and skills of speed and efficiency. Because in the real world, it is not about ideas, it is about information as a product, and investors work in cycles, and thus want guaranteed results in specific timeframes. I won’t be published in a serious journal when my argument is expressed with doodles and I won’t get the research grant if the research involves clowns and contemporary dance. Fair enough.
But excellence is only achieve through a big chunk of failure. And I, a slow-poke with no semblance of forward planning, need time to play, because I am not so sure of things, and need many things in different media to be sure.
And it was this realisation that liberated me.
Research is play. When I stopped writing in straight lines, used cartoons, and different coloured pens; imagined I was a detective and not an academic; embraced pop-culture examples that illustrated high-brow sociological theory; and realised that like a baby, I need to crawl before I can stride with wide, confident, writer’s-steps; I started to be released. But I needed the moment above; an explanation of the visual diary/discovery process used to create assignments at Art School by a friend studying digital media; to read a lecture in which an analogy between the Eurozone crisis and University education (can’t find the original) was made; and to make hideous craft projects all-the-time; before it sunk in.
And today I found the following, which the above makes all the more pertinent:
*** My mind wanders to Gym goers vs Natural Movement followers. Some great dudes in Canberra have a philosophy of play, and spend their lessons cheerily climbing on things, over things, and doing all sorts of exercises exploring what the body can do. My bigoted observation is that the gym junkies of my peer group who lift weights next to glass windows in shopping malls and then parade their muscles on drunken nights out don’t seem to be having as much fun nor becoming more movement literate.