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making space for play across the life course
adj. Of or relating to play and playfulness
Play is frequently overlooked as an irrelevant aspect of people’s social worlds. My work aims to assert the ludic as a fundamental element of the human condition, which is deserving of investigation in its own right. Two key points are central to this goal:
Common understandings of play
A review of the academic literature on play reveals 3 common understandings:
Play is framed as a process of social and cultural learning, and emotional, cognitive and physical development (see Smith 2009)
Play is positioned in opposition to seriousness, morality and productive work, and the social relations these value structures help to reproduce (see Stevens 2007)
Despite numerous attempts to develop typologies of play, the phenomenon proves hard to qualify (see Sutton-Smith 1997)
My work navigates these different understandings. Whilst I do not deny the importance of play to child development, I am interested in understanding play in the present – what it means to us in the here and now. To this end, I find Schechner’s focus on the verb – playing – rather than the noun – play – instructive. Emphasising the verb rather than the noun stresses that there is no discrete activity called play, but rather a more fluid, polymorphous process.
To date I have written about play according to 3 frames of reference:
Play is classically defined as ‘as-ifness’. This transportation to an imaginary sphere commonly relies on a separation of the world of the real and the world of play. However, I attend to two alternative, intersecting lines of thought that can be pursued from this ‘as-ifness’: the refraction and transformation of the everyday. This draws on an understanding of playful practice as both in and of the everyday.
Understandings of play as non-instrumental and/or the preserve of children position it as ‘Other’, formulated through comparison to that which it is not, but with which it remains in constant tension. In this sense it is understood as a counterpoint to the everyday and the rational, and couched in a framework of resistance. I destabilise the resistant character of playing by attending to its autotelic – or internal – quality: vitality. As such the politics of playing are repositioned as inwardly rather than outwardly oriented.
The limits of theorising play in relation to discourse are found in accounts that emphasise its ambiguity. Playing’s ‘non-representational’ nature is felt in its prioritising of the non-cognitive and more-than-rational, its embodied character, its heightening of the affective register, its momentary temporality, and its intersection between being and becoming.