‘Man only plays when in the full meaning of the word he is a man, and he is only completely a man as he plays.’48 Because we play and as long as we do so, we will always be more than inert objects, instinctual creatures or automated machines.
As with freedom and action, play is inherently dialectical and should be thought of more accurately as ‘interplay’ between people and the world around them. The operable panels of Soane’s Picture Room, for instance, or the sweeping red gate and pivoting walls of the Morella Boarding School in Spain, by Enric Miralles and Carme Pinos, transcend any narrow goal since there is always some amazement and doubt in the effects, and their motions exalt and bring alive the entire body in its exercise of power. These mechanisms are practical and beneficial, but during their operation a person is loosened from these results and enjoys a self-confirming delight in regulating the speed and trajectory of the movement itself. They remind us of a basic truth that adults have often forgotten: playing does not consist of arbitrary, detached or idle activity, to which it is often erroneously linked, nor to an alienated kind of busyness, fantasy or relaxation. On the contrary, play marks the heights of human involvement in the world. We do not depart from the world in play, but suddenly enter and interact with it for the first time, every time, as creative participants.
‘Play is a function of the living,’ we are told by historian Johan Huizinga, for it is the very essence of ‘voluntary activity’.49 In Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture, Huizinga examines the cultural manifestations of play in everyday life, with most of his focus on the play occurring between people, and between people and society. But one might question whether his stress on a mode of play that is the opposite of seriousness – arising in the ploys and tactics of ‘games of strength and skill, inventing games, guessing games, games of chance, exhibitions and performances of all kinds’ – does not emanate from something more fundamental, the kind of play that emerges during and only exists through each person’s interactions with the world. It is within this primordial ground of being and its continued renewal that decorating serves such a pivotal role, starving or nurturing our capacity to perform deeds and realize our existence in the here and how.
Increasing evidence comes from psychiatry that play is not only enjoyable, but is also the facilitator of a lifelong process of human wellbeing and self-restoration. In Playing and Reality, psychoanalyst and pediatrician Donald Winnicott argues that playing is essentially a search for the self, paralleling Hannah Arendt’s concept of action as a disclosure of the self. ‘It is in playing and only in playing that the individual child or adult is able to be creative‘, he writes. ‘And it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self.’50 Each playful act exposes the presence and traits of our personage. Our predilections are revealed, our capacities tested and new potentialities in our latent personality are tapped and brought into being. We achieve the precious sensation of being fully incarnate, giving us proof we are causal beings, able to control and improvise effects in the world. At the same time we are shown what is distinct and unique about us, including our aspirations and limitations. It is the ‘summation’ of all these experiences, says Winnicott, and their ‘reverberation’ in the body and mind, that provides ‘the basis for a sense of self’.51
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Evidently the self-identity of each human being is not a static construction achieved by the end of youth, but a fluid configuration that evolves and remains susceptible to atrophy throughout life. To remain healthy, this living structure requires perpetual renewal and selfcure through play until the end of one’s lifetime, for play, remarks Erikson, is ‘an infinite resource of what is potential in man’.52 Moreover ‘in order to be truly adult’, every person ‘must on each level renew some of the playfulness of childhood and some of the sportiveness of the young,’ and beyond this must ‘remain playful in the centre of his concerns and concerned with opportunities to renew and increase the leeway and scope of his and his fellow man’s activities’.53 Winnicott carries the implications of play further by suggesting that play is actually how we communicate since it is the essence of dialectical activity. ‘On the basis of playing is built the whole of man’s experiential existence,’ he concludes. Without play people are reduced to one-way communication, which ‘belongs to psychopathology or to an extreme of immaturity’.54 Offering an evolutionary perspective on this matter, Rene Dubos noted that the success of Homo sapiens as a biological species stems from its ability to respond creatively to stimuli and challenges, a response that is manifested primarily in a human desire to explore the world around him. ‘Such exploratory activities have much to do with what is generally called play’, he wrote, ‘but they constitute in reality an effective manner of establishing through experience a close relationship with the outer world. People in primitive tribes also explore their environment and thus acquire a deep knowledge of its resources, and its dangers. Even in the most civilized and technicized societies, play remains essential for the acquisition of knowledge, especially for self-discovery by the child and the adolescent. The drive to explore and to play probably contributes also to the continued growth of the adult. It may well be true that,’ he concludes, ‘when we are no longer young we are already dead’.55
While bodily play in our mass society has been demoted to a frivolous activity reserved for children, that portion of existence that is so far unusable in a consumer-based and cybernetic culture, it remains the activity most associated with creative living for all ages. The traditional playground limited to children, a tiny oasis in an otherwise flat and petrified world, is, despite its happy encounters, the most disturbing symptom of the debasement of human play in our society. If play is crucial to our existence as human beings, it should be more widely available and woven into the everyday world, forming sites where people of every age and physical skill are given the chance to renew their selfhood. In such places each of us would be able to recover some of the playfulness lost after childhood, and reestablish contact now and again with our developmental and evolutionary origins.