Friday, January 01, 2010

Where the Action Is: On the Site of the "Playful" Life (Part 6: Families at Play)

I haven't finished my read on the history of play yet, so I thought it might be more appropriate to post some personal thoughts about play.

The winter holiday season is a special time of year for many reasons. And while I find the rampant consumerism of the season distasteful, as a father of three I do embrace and celebrate those aspects of the season that I believe are redeeming and worth celebrating.

And one of those aspects is the celebration of play. So I thought I would offer a few reflections, focusing on the different aspects of play that I participated in over the past two weeks. These included different kinds of social and imaginative play.

The holiday season is a celebration of play for many reasons. Firstly, and most importantly, is that it is a time a year that affords us the most important prerequisite for play-- *time*. Having a few extra days to spend time with friends and family permits one to pursue activities that are much harder to pursue during the time constraints of the regular hectic work week.

As a father of three, this time of year involves many toys and games. One of the toys my children really enjoy was also a childhood favourite of mine-- lego. When I played with lego as a child they were mostly building blocks and what we built was determined by our imaginative capacities. So I would make airplanes, houses, etc.

Lego has changed a great deal since the 1970's (here is the Lego website). Lego is now sold in "themed packages" and comes with instructions! So last week I spent a few hours helping my son build a lego ship (this one here).

Rather than being something a child can build and re-build continuously, like the original lego, the new themed lego functions more as a model. You follow the instructions, build it, and then once it is built you can play with it (very delicately because Daddy's patience for putting these complex things back together is very limited!).

But unlike the original lego, where the possibilities of things to build was endless, the new lego encourages rule following and more fixed imaginative play. Of course this is a great marketing strategy. For once the child has built the designed construction, which is typically extremely complex and time-consuming, there is little incentive to take it apart and play with it. If you want to build something else you buy another themed lego set, thus maximizing profits but minimizing the benefits of the traditional lego experience. I wonder what impact this might have on children as they develop later in life.

I often struggle to come up with ideas for the kid's presents. I want to choose something they will (a) enjoy and (b) something that will last (at least a couple of months rather than hours). But finding something with longevity is a real challenge. Many toys today are made with very cheap materials, or are simply poorly made, so many of the toys we have bought over the past few years break within just a few days (I doubt if any toys made today would survive a century to be featured on a show like The Antiques Roadshow, which is one of my favourite shows to watch).

But the other challenge is that children can often lose interest in certain toys. This is probably a combination of having a surplus of toys (provided by loving family members and friends) coupled with the fact that many toys today are compelling "gimmicks", but not lasting toys. They appear to be a good toys (the packaging and advertising is effective), but don't pass the muster when actually played with. They simply don't engage a child enough for them to play with them for a sustained period. Children grow, their interests change, and what was fun to play with when 3 might not interest them in the slightest by age 4.

[[In fact, as I was writing this last paragraph my youngest son brought me his Mr Potato Head "darth tader" to put together, which is a real hit this year for him. I think Mr Potato Head is a great toy, and my older sons also have fun making funny faces with it. And we all love this video:

This year I decided to get my kids something different- a white board (in addition to the "regular" suspects like some lego and video games). I realize that this won't strike many as something for kids to play with as it is something they use in school every day (indeed I didn't include it with the presents, I just put it up in the living room and encouraged them to draw on it). But having the opportunity to make drawings on the wall of your own living room will, I hope, help tap their creative and imaginative minds.

The image above is one of the first pictures that my two older sons did on the white board. I also utilize the white board to make some more formal educational activities more fun, like adding and subtracting, printing and writing, etc. Doing these activities while standing and holding a marker can be more fun that sitting at a table with a pencil in hand (which is what they do all day at school).

Moving from the themes of toys and childhood games to play for adults, I will address the themes of cinema and music. Over the past few weeks I have seen a diverse range of movies, both in the cinema and ones we rented at home. I saw Invictus which was an excellent movie. It demonstrated the power of play to help unite people. I also saw a bunch of mediocre comedies and the new Sherlock Holmes movie. Sherlock Holmes was good (I love anything to do with Holmes), though no one can come close to Jeremy Brett's classic portrayal of Holmes. The TV series with Brett is my all-time favourite show, just beating out my #2 show-- Peter Falk's Columbo. I have always been drawn to detective shows. I guess I like the idea of the right-- armed with reason, evidence and determination-- triumphing over deception, greed and evil.

Watching movies is a great form of imaginative play. Laughing out loud with everyone in a crowded movie theatre to a skit that makes an awkward social moment humorous helps us become more human, we become psychologically connected and continuous with others in important ways. Or shedding a tear for a tragedy, like Titanic (which I also watched at home), can help connect us to history and appreciate the fragility of life and the human condition. When engaged in a movie we experience freedom from time and diminished consciousness of self.

Cinema helps expose us to different emotional stimuli, and can enhance and broaden our imagination and emotional responses to different stimuli. A good movie, like a good book, can help you simulate the experience of many different lives and minds. This is intrinsically rewarding and also confers many important instrumental benefits-- developing our empathy, making more vivid our own cognitive limitations and limited perspective, etc.

The final kind of play I would like to briefly mention is music. As I noted in a previous post, I only recently re-kindled my love of music after two decades of neglect. So over this holiday break I have set myself the challenge of trying to learn this song on piano (I still have a ways to go). Messing around on the piano has inherent attraction for me-- I have much more improvisational potential trying to teach myself songs I actually like, which is a welcome change from the rigidity imposed by the lessons I took as a child. The rigidity of lessons was a large part of the reason I eventually gave up on the piano. I didn't like the music I was learning to play! So now I try to learn songs I enjoy, and that motivates me to try to improve.

Last night we had some friends over for New Year's and after the children played some piano for everyone the parents did some karaoke and guitar.

My two older sons have only been playing the piano for 5 months and they really enjoy playing (and taking lessons). My wife and I never pressure our children to play for friends and family, they are the ones that request we do a recital for everyone (which means my wife and I also play and we practice with the same beginner's book they have!).

Listening to my sons play the piano, whether they are creating their own music or practising the songs assigned for their lessons, brings me the most intense and lasting happiness I have ever experienced. Such moments stir many different emotions in my mind. I admire their determination and self-discipline. I empathise with their frustration when struggling to master a song, and when they play for others I admire their willingness to take the risk of making mistakes (in front of adults they do not know well) and the humility they display when others congratulate them on their performance.

One parent played an old favourite of mine on acoustic guitar- the WHO's Baba O'Riley.

Listening to a song that played a formative role in my own, somewhat rebellious youth (when I had hair down to my shoulders!), helps me transcend time and make vivid past ambitions, desires and anxieties. Forging such connectedness with one's past self can be intrinsically rewarding and help one develop as a moral agent.

Sadly contemporary moral philosophy places little emphasis on introspection, let alone play, friendship, music or love. The professionalization of the discipline has meant that moral "philosophy" (understood as "love of wisdom") has given way to love of the primacy of the concerns of careerism. The Ancients, like Plato and Aristotle, appreciated the importance of art and love.

Why, one might wonder, does a political philosopher spend so much time thinking about play when there are so many pressing societal concerns facing humanity? I realize that my preoccupation with play will sound like idle triviality to many in the field. But I believe that play is the key to the good life, and that contemporary capitalist societies are "play-deprived". We value work over play, career and money over family and our physical and mental health. And this creates an unhappy and unhealthy polity.

I am still working out my ideas concerning the diagnosis of play deprivation in our culture. And I find reflecting on my own personal experiences, as well as reading about the history and biology of play, helps sustain my enthusiasm for this neglected topic.

Even though my ideas on this topic are still in their early stages, I suppose I would be willing to make one general prescription that we can all consider as individuals. And that is to ask yourself-- what role does play play in your life? Reflecting on that question might help one prioritize play in their lives, whether it be forging stronger relationships with family and friends, exercising, reading, watching movies, listening to music or composing and playing music.

The world is full of fascinating people and cultures. And there are many diverse and rewarding ways of becoming psychologically connected and continuous with others (in both distant times and distant places, as well as those local and immediate). Doing so can help foster one's own eudemonia. The playful life is the good life! All children already know this. And we adults could learn a lot by following their example.