By: Professor Raymond Hall
What’s all this business about play leading to anyway?
In essence, it’s to call attention to what I consider a neglected but important aspect of contemporary society that seems (to me) to be deleterious to the wellbeing of my children and grandchildren.
Bear with me as I provide a context for my misgivings.
Johan Huizinga, a Dutch cultural historian wrote a book in 1938, Homo Ludens: The Play Element in Culture (Homo Ludens translated is Man the Player), in which he argued that, from the earliest to contemporary times, play is a necessary ingredient in the establishment of culture and society. The play element in culture and society, according to him, is everywhere evident, including art, law, war, poetry, language and philosophy, among many others. He was convinced that play is part of and reaches into the depth of our being; it enlivens our existence; it soothes our souls. In short, play is necessary because it balances us psychologically, allowing us to escape from everyday, soul-deflating reality to dwell in a world — for longer and shorter periods of time — where we maximize the gift of life at every opportunity. Play is an activity that without fail infuses joyfulness and happiness into our lives. Does work do that as consistently as play? Perhaps, but I’m dubious.
Stay with me please!
Let’s start at an early phase of the human lifecycle. Soon after birth, virtually all animals, including us, are preoccupied by play. What is the most common human activity soon after birth? Want a hint? What comes after food? Answer: It’s fair to say that play takes up as much time in caring for babies as sleep, feeding and enhancing cleanliness combined. That is, when not sleeping, eating and being kept clean, babies want to play. In fact, play remains an important factor in human development from infancy throughout the lifecycle. Humans in general, and seniors in particular, benefit enormously from incorporating play as an integral part of their psychological and physical development. Engaging in almost any form play is beneficial because it exercises the brain and enhances learning, which in turn further causes more brain activity. We’ve already exploded the myth that there’s an age limit to learning. That means the more we play the more we learn. Thus mental and physical play and learning combined are sworn enemies of the premature development of dementia and perhaps Alzheimer’s disease.
Looking back, the penchant and time for play is interrupted by the demand to work in the latter part of adolescence.
Are you still there?
What kind of work? Huizinga had in mind the kind of work that took the joy from a large part of one’s life; work that demanded our presence unreservedly in the everyday world almost 24/7. He was not referring to work that engaged one’s passion, elevated the spirit and animated the soul. Ultimately, Huizinga’s concern three quarters of a century ago resonates deeply with us today: We are approaching a dangerous intersection where there is little or no distinction between work and play.
As individuals with long experience in life, we older people are in a good place to “go tell it on the mountain and everywhere” just how important play is to human wellbeing. Because we’re no longer in the workaday world, we have the luxury of time to set examples of the freedom that play can offer by busily playing with our grandchildren, engaging in play with our friends, and enhancing our mental and physical fitness.