The Play's The Thing: Rethinking the Concept of Play in Art and Life

“Why would you want to kill animals?” The hippie dad of one of my playmates asked.

Sunshine’s dad was a real hippie – long hair, massive beard, dazed speech patterns, and he had no qualms about approaching a marauding group of four-and five-years-olds in order to teach us a life lesson. The fact that he was nude didn’t concern him, even as it alarmed us.

“Why are you pretending to hurt animals?”

We had been pretending to hunt animals. There was a context that is now lost to long-gone decades. Killing animals hadn’t been the point, it was a sub-plot, a tossed-off detail. It felt strange being called out for a facet of the imaginative narrative that we had put little stake or thought into. And I remember thinking, even as five-year-old, that the hippie dad was missing the point. We knew well the difference between play and real life. None of us would actually harm an animal.

Nothing could have been clearer.  

Years later, my fiction-writing instructor, Richard Cortez Day, said to us on more than one occasion that writing should be ‘play.’ I was initially insulted by this. How could my life’s passion, my purpose, possibly be labelled something as insignificant as ‘play.’ I am an artist! I require serious validation!

At the time, I thought I understood what Day meant by this. Be adventurous, try new approaches, take risks. And I suppose he did (probably) mean those things, but as I’ve aged and endured more of life’s sometimes painful lessons, I think he was getting at a deeper and more essential truth.

Stuart Brown has for years studied the effects of play on its participants. It’s easy to discount his field of study as being the problem of affluent Westerners, until he points out that play is integral not just to a human’s initial development but also to his/her life-long maturation and growth, regardless of race, economic status, or region. Play is important. Play is serious. Play is necessary. To all of us.

Left on my own, I tend to take the activities I do involve myself in—be they family time, work, writing—seriously. I don’t mean that these activities don’t have weight or import, but my approach, my attitude, is often one of serious purpose. That adventurous five year old pissing off hippy dads is, alas, long gone. I now know too well the risks, the consequences of failure, and I often choose safe inactivity over the unknown because I have kids, a mortgage, responsibilities. Plus, fear is my go-to response to just about everything, and I don't like to feel afraid.

But re-framing even my most serious endeavors—executing in my job so that I don’t get fired, let’s say—as play, as an activity in which I inject more experimentation and risk as well as potential failure, could I then find fresh fulfillment in that work? Could I cast off the persistent pressure and shake off the fear? Could I enjoy my life more?

I don’t know, but I suspect it’s worth the attempt.