I have always had an ambivalent relationship with play. Most of us consider play as a domain reserved for our childhood and for children. As a teenager, with an oversized sense of responsibility, I chose what I then thought was the moral high ground and denied myself opportunities to play. When I did give in to pressures of play, I struggled to completely be present for the experience, often feeling like an observer to others’ playing. Early adulthood was not that different, as there were always things to take care of, and my mindset was that play would take away my attention from these things. I chose austerity and restriction, relegating play to the arena of frivolity. When there were so much more ‘important’, ‘useful’, ‘productive’, and ‘responsible’ things to be done.
I am not quite sure what flipped the script for me. Perhaps it was the weariness of my spirit, feeling burnt out, burdened, and exhausted from the bottomless well of things, causes and responsibilities that seemed to call my name. Perhaps it was waking up, and taking a good look at myself in the mirror and realising that what I was seeing did not make me feel like I was living my life to the fullness of what I could be. What I saw was someone very highly functional and responsive to the mounting pressures of my life, work and activism. However, the image was so unbalanced as I had somehow lost touch with lightness and spontaneity. This in turn impacted on my connection to others, my vitality as well as my ability to let go and be open to new possibilities and opportunities.
My wake up call led me to re-frame play as a valuable social justice pursuit because everyone deserves the chance to relax, have fun, and feel joy. Not only that, but by reclaiming and prioritising play, it means we intentionally push back against neoliberal framing of toxic productivity that frown upon play if there is not a “good” reason to do it. This is what makes play a form of resistance. In other words, in a society that demands explanations for our every move, playing just for the fun of it is radical. Reclaiming play is an opportunity to learn from children how to enjoy ourselves and each other in a world that tries to make us serious, hardened, isolated, compliant, productive, and exhausted.
Incorporating play in all areas of life
Working with different activists, movements and organisations, I am keenly aware of how activist agendas are often robbed of flexibility. Most often by the need to report on project-based donor outcomes or when causes must appear serious in order to be taken seriously. Sadly, not only in our personal lives, but also in our collective work and strategies. Have we forgotten how to play or to incorporate play into our practice? Our lives, our work, and our activism have conditioned us to go with “should” do, to choose “productive” pastimes for relaxation, and to see anything that does not bring insights and understanding as frivolous.
All this to say that my journey has led me to intentionally make time for play and playfulness in my personal life as well as in the work I do. I do not think I am great at it yet, but as time goes by, I feel like I am strengthening the muscle, and it feels more organic.
So, this is my call for us to include play in our personal and activist practice. Below are some tips to help us reclaim play as a core pillar of our life and activist stratagem:
# 1 Connect to memories of play
When thinking back to playing in childhood, what pictures, feelings, sounds, smells, and tastes comes to mind? Where are you, what are you doing, who are you with, and how aware are you of time? When we play, our brains light up with movement, and we feel in touch with our bodies as we predict, act, and react to each moment. We also build social competences and ways of interacting to the world that is flexible and open. Children often learn complex skill sets that are often lacking in other learning places within our cultures.
# 2 Integrate play into work
Bring childlike type of activities into work or activism. Learning and play do not have to be mutually exclusive. Diverse experiences blurs, collides and interweaves, evolving in uncertain and complex directions during moments of play. Children’s play invites inquiries and interests that embody a plurality of knowledge. We can certainly learn from children who know the best way to go down the slide is on a blanket because it is the fastest, etc. Such moments are full of messiness, possibilities and tensions with the potential to transform existing hierarchies, relationships and interactions. In process work, we can create personas, and role-plays that allow us to play, whilst weaving through complex dynamics.
# 3 Make time to play just for the heck of it
We know how to invite our friends over for a game night with structured activities, and rules, with winners and losers. But we forget how to hula hoop, build bridges for ants, squelch through mud, because it makes such cool sounds, and see what happens when we drop a balloon full of water from the top floor. I remember organising an activist conference for over 900 women. We planned a big celebratory event and invited some dignitaries and artists to perform. The event was to be held in a majestic outside venue, and from all accounts we were ready for an unforgettable event. However, we had not planned on the unexpected rainfall that messed up all of our well-laid plans. As the 900 women from across the world stood under some covering, waiting for the rain to stop, a few of them started dancing in the rain, and then eventually all of the women were dancing and laughing. To this day, of the 5 days of deep, robust engagements, the memory that endured was of all of us dancing in the rain. It was a moment of such spontaneous play and joy. A beautiful connector, that illustrates the freedom, joy and pleasure that comes from the unexpected claiming of play.