Many of the so-called givens of our everyday lives are based on assumptions so deeply embedded in culture and language as to defy scrutiny. As for society’s sacred cows that are clearly visible, it’s easy to just ignore any niggling loose threads of doubt we might have, lest we start pulling at them and end up wholly unraveling our once neat world-view or self-image.
The danger of approaching any topic in an overly serious or reverential manner however, is that we forfeit our right to challenge the status quo. Oddly enough, some of our most cherished institutions, proverbial pillars of society, may owe their very existence to play. For example, Apter (1982) argues that religion is essentially a playful approach to day-to-day circumstances, often misinterpreted in a serious fashion by believers. Neither are the sciences immune to play and playfulness. So states Jaques Hadamard in his “On the Psychology of Invention in the Mathematics Field” (1945), a book that famously includes Einstein’s admission that for him a “combinatorial play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought – before there is any connection with logical construction in words or other signs that can be communicated to others” (p. 142).
Like religion, ritual has in common with play the fact that it creates “frames that are not grounded in the usual material of natural and social life” (Sutton-Smith, 1979, p. 317). Where ritual and play differ however, is that with the former we “comply with external patterns and objects” with an eye to future consequences (some sort of harmonisation with the greater), whereas in play those same patterns are challenged simply for the thrill of it and sense of self-direction it engenders (Henricks, 2008). The patriarch Abraham is said to have smashed his own father’s idols before going on a joyride across the Euphrates that saw him unwittingly spearhead three religions for the price of one. Sounds like play to me.
Organised religions may even formally acknowledge the necessity of providing much-needed psychic relief for believers from time to time. On certain feast days, the usual order of things may be upended. Examples include the medieval Christian Feast of Fools, where the normal church hierarchy was inverted, or the Jewish Feast of Purim, with its masquerades and merry-making that would normally contravene Rabbinic laws regarding dress and conduct. Halloween also, has its roots in religious festival.
Although both play and festivals keep participants firmly rooted in the present moment, they differ in that during the latter “we are amazed by the novelty, power, and even splendor of the world and by our own sense of being taken up and transformed by such events. In play, we are fascinated instead by our own powers—that we can somehow confront the world and shape our own experiences within it” (p.178).
When it comes to our own young children, parents wearied by the hussle and bussle of life can, at times, be less than tolerant of the little ones’ attempts to momentarily challenge the givens of their own lives. Dr J. Singer warns that societal pressures can indeed overcome children’s natural urge to play: “One of the things that we’ve been concerned with is that while most children show some make-believe by the age of two and a half or three, the continuation and expansion of pretend play seems to require a certain kind of social nurturance” (Singer & Singer, 1979, p. 197).
Singer goes on to add that the whilst more structured play is commonly condoned by societies, subcultures and families (probably because it more closely resembles work), more fantastic, spontaneous outbursts of make-believe are all too often met with derision. And yet the benefits of such play are many. Children displaying greater instances of make-believe play display “better waiting behaviour, self-control, capacity for self-entertainment, reality discrimination, and resistance to temptation…creating elaborate alternative environments” (p. 199). Meares (2005) adds that “play, or a playlike activity of mind, may be a crucial element in linking together…the distinct and separable facts of ordinary existence” necessary to forming a coherent sense of self (p. 51).
So, parents please don’t be too harsh about that necessary “speck of dust” in your young child’s eye next time they start talking to their imaginary friend. It might just be possible that you have so many “logs” of your own to consider first.
(c) 2016 Marshall Heiser
Please note: Portions of some of the articles and postings contained in this website were presented in thesis form in fulfillment of the requirements for the PhD of Marshall Heiser from Griffith University.
Apter, M. J. (1982). The experience of motivation: The theory of psychological reversals. London, England; New York, NY: Academic Press.
Aragones, S. (1969, December) Who knows what evils lurk in the hearts of men? The shadow knows. [Cartoon] Mad magazine (131). New York, NY: William Gaines.
Claxton, G. (2006). The wayward mind: An intimate history of the unconscious. London, England: Little, Brown Book Group.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York, NY: Harper & Row.
Hadamard, J. (1945). On the psychology of invention in the mathematical field. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Henricks, T. (2008). The nature of play. In American journal of play, 1(2), 157-180.
Meares, R. (2005). The metaphor of play: Origin and breakdown of personal being. London, England; New York, NY: Routledge.
Singer, J., & Singer, D. (1979). The values of the imagination. In B. Sutton-Smith (Ed.), Play and learning (pp. 195-218). New York, NY: Gardner Press.
Sutton-Smith, B. (1979). Play and learning. New York, NY: Gardner Press.