The Fine Art of Pointless Play

The Fine Art of Pointless Play

By Aya Husni Bey
Creative Counsellor, Art, and Play Advocate
Holistic Counsellor, & Therapeutic Play Practitioner.

Contact Aya Husni Bey before using any content found in this piece.

The Quiet Disappearance of the Point of Life…

‘We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.’
– George Bernard Shaw

For as long as humans have existed, they have played. Evidence stretches back into the evolutionary mists of homo sapiens; from cave paintings to bone instruments and stone sculptures by way of storytelling, dancing, elaborate rituals and general observation of hunter-gatherers. And of course play has always been cherished in civilised society too. But of late something has gone very wrong… because we have all but ceased to play.

In recent decades, civilised society has got too serious, too work-driven, too tiring and too stressing for the pleasure of traditional play; meaning something fun, creative, absorbing and ostensibly pointless.  Now, playful games and past-times are being edited out of people’s busy, fretful schedules.  And the absence is making the heart grow heavier…

For example, in rich, stable countries, depression is at an all-time high. It is the number one reason adults go to counsellors and therapists – accounting for over half of all adult clients. And a defining of trait of depression is the inability to play. And vice versa; relearning to play alleviates depression.

Play is natural as daylight, and just as vital for our well-being. It also prompts the question: What is life for? It has been observed for centuries that ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’ (that phrase was around as long ago as 1659), by which reckoning it would seem we are hell bent on making ourselves and our lives as dull as ditch-water.

Psychologist Dr. Stuart Brown, author of the best-selling Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul has been studying play for decades; “Of all animal species, humans are the biggest players of all. We are built to play and built through play. Most obviously, it is intensely pleasurable. It energizes and enlivens us. It eases our burdens. It eases our natural sense of optimism and opens us up to new possibilities.” 

In short, play is critical; it is how humans develop and how we enjoy life – at the same time. In the USA, Brown has founded the highly influential National Institute for Play, which seeks to reverse the decline of adult play. As yet, there is no such equivalent in the UK. However, there is a general understanding among British psychologists, educationalists and counsellors that play is quietly disappearing from people’s lives. And leaving a sort of free-floating anxiety in its wake…

Where, when and why did our fun go? And can we have it back, please?

You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”

This fashionable quote adorns the literature of the National Institute for Play, and appears on its website’s landing page, wrongly credited to Plato (who was not very playful, in fact he was a sober-sides).

However, the true origin of this quote is revealing; it was penned in the Seventeenth Century by a high-ranking member of the Anglican Church, the Dean of Lismore. He was writing in one of those amusingly pompous but well-intentioned pamphlets; A Letter of Advice to a Young Gentleman Leaving the University Concerning his Behaviour and Conversation in the World. In other words, a good person in the not-so-distant past – even in the Century of the Puritans – was expected to put great store by play.

The Dean goes on to write approvingly of ‘wagers’ as part of the playful process of getting to know another adult. Long, sombre conversation was viewed as comparatively dull, inappropriate and slow if one really wanted to know acquaintances. We simply do not talk about play in that knowing way, as if it were a constantly available option. Yet it sounds enviable.

Nowadays, in an adult context the word ‘play’ most often means the formality of competitive sports booked in a sports facility, or perhaps narcotic escape, probably by way of alcohol. Without knocking either of these hugely enjoyable pleasures, they are not really creative, open-ended and true to the varied spirit of freedom imbued in the word ‘play’.

Similarly, those thieves of leisure time, electronic games and passive entertainment like television and surfing the net, are enjoyable too. But, again, neither match up to Johan Huizinga’s celebrated definition of play: “… a free activity standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life as being ‘not serious’ but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly…. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space…”

We know of this transcendental power which real play has; we recall it from childhood. We respect it, we miss it, we even yearn for it… So where is the adult version? Why is play slipping out of our lives? According to the experts, adult play is being washed away by the indifferent tide of history and trampled upon by the heartless march of technology…

The Dean of Lismore was reminding people to play nearly four hundred years ago, so even then it was suspected that play wasn’t sufficiently high enough up people’s agendas. And that was a full century before the Industrial Revolution; back in the days when most people scratched a living from the land, so much work was seasonal; there was a lot of time to rest and play, and no electronica to devour the hours.

Without wandering too far down the anarchist path, one can observe that the big institutions which came to pass after the Industrial Revolution have most definitely suppressed play. For sure, modern psychologists and educationalists often bemoan the lack of fun and play in schools.

Once upon a time, not that long ago, childhood and adolescence were all about play – that was when we learned to play and learned through play. But universal primary education changed that, followed by universal secondary education; two very recent phenomena in human history…

School is very much about academia rather than play, which is squeezed into tiny, desultory intervals. On the academic treadmill, children are forced to learn about subjects that, by and large, engage them very minimally and will be broadly irrelevant to the rest of their lives from the day they leave school. This deadening process is the virtual opposite of play, wherein people are absorbed, enlivened, transported and even joyful.

However, if children’s education is a crisis situation then adult play has seen the apocalypse. Long, year-round working hours, coupled with the rise of passive entertainment, have created adults who hardly ever play or think of playing.

The evolutionary psychologist, Dr. Peter Gray of Boston College, extends this sorry state of affairs back through the Industrial Revolution, and the Dean’s time, into the Neolithic Revolution, meaning the rise of farming and the dawn of civilisation:-

“Historically, with the rise of agriculture, children’s opportunities for free play have diminished. In many post-hunter-gatherer societies, children had to spend large portions of each day working—typically at domestic and farming tasks and, with the industrial revolution, in factories.”

He applies a similar pattern of play-loss to adults. Before the Neolithic Revolution (i.e. before farming and civilization became the order of the day) adult life was playful. And that prehistoric period covers the overwhelming majority of human existence. Gray leaves no doubt that modern adulthood is a playless and joyless state of being compared to the lifestyle of our carefree ancestors:-.

“Anthropologists have often pointed out that hunter-gatherers’ work is skill-intensive but not labour-intensive. Research studies suggest that hunter-gatherers work somewhere between 20 and 40 hours a week, on average, depending on just what you count as work.”

It is significant that to get even close to a total of 40 hours of work per week for hunter-gatherers we need to include their leisurely food preparation and cooking time. And we tend to include none of this when tallying up civilised working hours. Nor do we include household chores in civilised working hours, yet much of the hunter-gatherer’s ‘working week’ involves tasks at camp such as weapon making and preparation for rituals.

“Moreover, [hunter-gatherers] do not work according to the clock… There is ample time in hunter-gatherers’ lives for leisure activities, including games of many sorts, playful religious ceremonies, making and playing musical instruments, singing, dancing, travelling to other bands to visit friends and relatives, gossiping, and just lying round.”

“During the 10,000 years since the onset of agriculture and then industry, we have developed countless laboursaving devices, but we haven’t reduced our labour. Today, most people spend more time working than did hunter-gatherers, and our work… is less playful… Hunter-Gatherers’ work is playful because it is done in a social context, with friends…”

The thinking runs that the natural state of humans was playful for almost 200 millennia, and then civilisation made us less playful and more miserable. And then the Industrial Revolution intensified this dismal situation. And now we are boring…

It is also noteworthy that for most people on the planet this shift is a lot more recent than the 10,000 years Gray mentions. According to James C Scott, Professor of Political Science and Anthropology at Yale, most people throughout history – not just prehistory – were broadly ungoverned until a mere 500 years ago. In other words (by this admittedly extreme estimate), it is only in the most recent 0.25% of human history that the majority of humans have lost the opportunity to hunt and gather – and play a lot. And do work which was in itself social, creative and playful.

We cannot turn back the tide of history. But we don’t have to lie down and let it wash over our entire lives. We can take a stand. We can play…

The Revolution Starts Here…

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”
Pablo Picasso.

This long, historical context of adult play – a sort of death by a thousand cuts – sounds discouraging yet the beautiful fact remains: people do not want to stop playing, and they refuse to do so entirely. They still cherish play even if they are mostly just cherishing the idea of it. We sense that it is critical, even though there is no money in it and no ‘reason’ for it.

However, the idea of playing troubles us modern folks… The invitation to partake in creative, open-ended play can make confident intelligent adults feel awkward. It’s so long since they played they’re not sure how to do it. They like the idea, but they are not quite sure what it even means…

We recognise many people, often including ourselves, would benefit from painting or scribbling, dancing or acting out, storytelling or word games, or even just messing about with figures in a sand tray; or any other form of creative, free-spirited play which is as old as humankind.At the very least they/we would get pleasure from it.

However, we know that we sometimes get more than pleasure out of playing; we experience a shift, to somewhere new and good. Floating off into the space of play for a while, leaving the humdrum world astern and seeing what happens, what stirs; it replenishes us and can even change our feelings about ourselves and spread light on our lives when we return to daily reality.

One could argue that one has to step out of daily life in order to see it clearly, and play is a good way of doing that. Play might or might not yield conscious and revealing thoughts about ourselves and our lives. It might or might not yield unconscious and revealing thoughts… but the worst that can happen when we play is that we feel better for doing it – we feel like players.

While we sense the freedom, escape, fun and expression encoded into the concept of play, the actual impulse to play has atrophied. To step out of daily, humdrum, automaton behaviour and to neglect the buzz of the endless ‘to do’ list and to resist fretting about bills and plans… it’s all so unfamiliar. People know this is wrong – downright barking mad – and boring of them, but they feel it just the same. As mentioned, the fact is the prospect of play can make us nervous, self-conscious, confused…

It’s understandable if one accepts that play is – for want of a better word – magical; meaning we really do not fully understand it. And perhaps we are not really supposed to – just like a joke will not survive analysis and you don’t need a literary degree to enjoy a novel. We just need to embrace it anyway, since it is as natural as breathing and probably a lot more natural than most jobs we do.

In her thoughtful book, On Not Being Able to Paint(a title which speaks volumes), British psychoanalyst Marion Milner serves up her own artistic inability as an example of the commonplace problem of feeling inept. Playing is not about creating great art – that happens once in a while and is never the point – it is about getting lost in the flow of creativity. If the painting is rubbish, who cares? The means is the end.

Milner catches the mysterious spirit of play and, arguably, renders it vital; “…being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one…. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost…”

You might be playing jazz, writing poetry, dancing, drawing, creating a whole world with a few figurines or otherwise engaging in a creative endeavour. Crucially, it serves no ostensible purpose, does not matter and, again, is perhaps dodgy as a bag of monkeys in terms of artistic merit. (Aside from quality not being the point at all, it is worth noting there is no great writer, artist, dancer, musician, etc. who will not testify to the fact that lots of their efforts didn’t work and are in fact embarrassing rubbish.)

That strange absorption which playing exerts on people; an absorption of time and energy – of self – has always mystified humankind. Being anathema to reason (and money-making) is perhaps why play has been allowed to fade out of our lives.  The ‘space in which we play’ has no physical reality and therefore defies analysis.  Writing inThe British Psycho-Analytical Society Scientific Bulletin, Milner quoted the ground-breaking psychoanalyst D W Winnicott, who wrote the seminal Playing and Reality(another revealing title); “Winnicott asked, ‘If play is neither inside nor outside, where is it?’ True play transcends the opposites of serious and unserious.”

Somewhere therein lies the truth about play: Our very serious world offers little space for play, yet we seriously need it… though, by definition, play is not serious; it has a transcendent lightness about it, which lifts you out of routine, daily living and humdrum thinking; and this lift is extraordinarily replenishing, which is seriously important, indeed fundamental to our well-being… Serious and unserious at the same time: there is nothing else like play. It has no substitute.

Only a fool would suggest that play is a panacea for all our unhappiness and woes. But only an insensitive and unimaginative moron would deny that more play would make us all feel better. So we must surely lighten up and weave it back into our lives…

Can I Help You?…

“To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain, and play with it!”

– Charlie Chaplin

I like to play, and I have the CV to prove it… I have been a dancer in a troop that played big festivals and clubs (I now hold dance evenings), I create art work, facilitate group play and creativity enhancing events independently and collaboratively. I initially did a degree in Art and branched out into puppetry and mask-making; just about any creative endeavour can float my boat. However, I am also a qualified counsellor, therapeutic play practitioner and budding transpersonal arts counsellor. Playing and counselling are natural bedfellows in my world.

I don’t just deal with depression but I do find that depression is indeed the most common reason people go to counselling (this pattern is verified by the BACP – British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy), which is a depressing fact in itself.  However, depression is a broad term and, arguably, we all get a bit depressed at some time or other. The eternally cheerful don’t exist, and would probably be rather annoying if they did.

My form of counselling usually includes play, in some form, depending on what the client likes or what might work – which often surprises them. Of course I have every respect for conventional verbal counselling, and I use that too. However, I would champion the playful approach particularly for depressed and stressed clients.

A defining trait of depression (and on the opposite side of the same coin is stress), in all its guises and at all levels, is feeling overwhelmed, apathetic and ‘stuck’. And it is noteworthy that play is about taking a trip – taking a creative pathway to the unconscious, to be explicit and perhaps slightly pretentious-sounding. It is not about unsticking the client’s reality, but creating a distance from it. It is about leaving the pole position of that reality and eventually returning, though perhaps a little changed, perhaps feeling a little less stuck and more likely to move on. The change might be incremental but it also might be dramatic.

For example, I have noticed that clients who (re)learn to play also start to date more. And loneliness is the handmaiden of depression. A study in Finland looked at 1,695 men and 1,776 women of working age. Over an eight year period, they found that, “those who lived alone bought 80 per cent more antidepressants than those living with other people.” (Therapy Today, Volume 23 Issue 3).

Ultimately, loneliness lies behind many people’s decision to come to counselling in the first place. They may or may not have busy and seemingly successful lives, but they feel disconnected anyway. As Henry Rollins remarked, “I feel more lonely in a crowded room with boring people than I feel on my own.”

Famously playful Rollins proves the point that people who play tend to thwart loneliness in the long run. The playful mind alights on friendship and fun, sex and romance; it spurs the will towards these life-enhancing necessities. Meanwhile the ‘stuck’ mind generates a void around the person; such that they can be a boring person rubbing along with other boring persons in a crowded room, perhaps all teetering on the private abyss of depression.

Only a foolish counsellor – or a pathologically optimistic one – expects a client to create great art when indulging in creative play for therapeutic reasons. For one thing, creative play might just consist of role-playing, or messing around with figurines, thus creating no tangible work of art. It matters not a jot. Creative play is about entering into a state of flow, entirely dissociated from daily life. It is enlivening, faintly rapturous and definitely a full-on experience.

You step out of time when you go with the flow of creative play. You cease to languish with the flotsam and jetsam of quotidian reality. I would even go as far as to say that the therapeutic value of play as a process, which absorbs clients – foreby any realisations that might spring forth from it – chimes with Joseph Campbell’s famous view of modern life:“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive… so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”

Play is about experiencing an immersion in something which might make no obvious sense. Yet it is absorbing and perhaps personally revealing. And it is always serious and unserious, at the same time: In that regard I would dare to suggest that the mystery of playing overlaps the mystery of living – and thus play is the stuff of life…

Selected Bibliography

Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul by Dr. Stuart Brown

A Letter of Advice to a Young Gentleman Leaving the University Concerning his Behaviour and Conversation in the Worldby Dr. Richard Lingard, Dean of Lismore

Play Makes Us Humanand The Decline of Play and the Rise of Psychopathology in Children and Adolescentsby Dr. Peter Gray

On Not Being Able to Paintby Marion Milner

The Power of Mythby Joseph Campbell

Playing and Realityby D. W. Winnicott

Journals cited:-

The British Psycho-Analytical Society Scientific Bulletin

Therapy Today