Learning to Play

My sister and I both studied Ballet for most of our childhood; she until an age one goes pro or gracefully retires, myself until pink leotards were simply no longer an attractive option and my pirouettes were more pudding than Pavlova.  Reminiscing over coffee I mentioned that the one memory I have of truly enjoying Ballet was the times we were allowed a few minutes at the end of class for Improvisation.  The teacher would put music on and let us move in whatever way we were inspired.

My sister told me she hated those times.  She was frozen. She didn’t know what to do.

In a recent radio interview I passionately declared a need to integrate Play in our lives daily.  I was half jokingly asked in response, “How?”

Many people believe that it is a question of time, how do I find time, between work, family and other commitments to essentially ‘do nothing.’  Play is viewed as an isolated activity that is purely for pleasure, without goal or outcome, but actually it is a question of attitude. Psychologist D.W. Winnicott said  “Play is not just an activity, it is a state of mind.”   It is a state of being Playful then, to which we aspire.  Being Playful is to have a sense of curiosity, an ability to take risks, explore and try new things. This is a natural tendency, as play is the root of learning, which as a matter of survival we innately undertake from birth.  However being Playful can be challenging for a number of reasons.

In his research Winnicott noted that ‘an infant needs a period of hesitation, in which to rediscover’ that is a moment to pause, assess the risk and decide how to proceed.  As we all have varying degrees of tolerance to risk, the amount of time needed and our approach to play will vary.  Interestingly, Winnicott also notes that the analyst (or in our case the facilitator) must also exercise tolerance.  I often find when facilitating a creative experience with Loaded Brush, some participants will need a much greater amount of time to take action and although it would be easy for me to step in and relieve both our discomfort, it is here that real work of play is taking place.  For if we respect this hesitation and allow the participant to move beyond it, to support, encourage and empower, rather than instruct, the creative muscle is strengthened.

Play then, is difficult for the sense of discomfort it may inspire and as those around us (teachers, parents, colleagues) rush to eliminate discomfort by stepping in they unwittingly or unknowingly make it ever more challenging for when we next face an opportunity to learn. 

Writing is an exercise in play for me, as I love words and ideas.  However, as I write this, my 12 month old puppy is stealing shoes and just about anything else that might get my attention in his effort to encourage a different kind of play.  His motivation is social and collaborative, in direct conflict with my desire to play quietly and alone.  Neither of us can currently value the other’s game.  Guess who is winning?  Excuse me a moment…

Managing a supportive environment for play can be yet another challenge.  In our rush for an outcome, we often overlook the value of play opportunities inherent in the process.  I am by nature an impatient person and sometimes find myself guilty of this blunder. However I am blessed to be surrounded by those to whom Play is uncompromisingly fundamental.  When I am not being reminded of the value of play by a wet nose in my face, it is my partner who launches into song and sticks a finger in my ear until I laugh and refocus my attention.

And so when I am asked how to be more playful, the answer is simple.  Give yourself permission.  Practice, be patient and whenever you can give those around you permission to Play too.  

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