Power in Play:
Reclaiming Play in the Serious Work of our Lives

Lanie Melamed

For too long, our culture has viewed play as appropriate only for children, and in some rare instances for adults (when they are artists, nursery school teachers, or living out their retirement years). When we dare to question the Protestant Work Ethic and affirm both what feels good, and what works for us, it seems to me that play must be reclaimed from childhood memory and made a reality in everyday adult life.

When I speak of play I refer not to an activity, a game to be played or a T.V. show to be watched, but an attitude or way of being which values involvement, joyfulness, and fun. Although playfulness needs to be a bona fide component of adult life, it cannot be achieved separate from its polar opposites, seriousness, work and/or pain. A full life is one characterized by a healthy balance between play and work, play and pain etc. Because evil, pain, and violence are so pervasive in our world, it is doubly important that we celebrate life–enhancing qualities wherever we can, both as individuals and in community with others. Play is one way of gathering hope, strength, and vision.

The purpose of this article is to make a case for play and the spirit of playfulness in the domain of human pleasure and productive work. This includes work settings, classrooms, conferences and meetings, protest actions, and groups involved in social change. Play makes everyday life more fun. It increases personal well–being and health, it opens us up to learning, it builds group cohesion and morale, and can be a powerful form of personal, social, and political subversion. If you are still a disbeliever, here are some reasons for valuing play:

Personal well–being and health

  • relieves physical tension, enhances respiration, re–activates the brain, is both a source of energy and an outlet for excess energy. Play is a great muscle relaxer (did you ever try to lift or move something heavy when you had the giggles?)
  • helps us maintain our sanity by bringing an attitude of lightness to balance the serious. When we are able to laugh at ourselves, we are less apt to take ourselves too seriously.
  • enables us to reframe negative or destructive situations; increases flexibility and spontaneity in meeting life’s demands.
  • creates a feeling of personal potency, and affirms our existence; through play we feel in charge AND are re–charged.
  • increases positive feelings, which tend to be socially contagious.
  • is expressed in uniquely individual ways, requiring no special skills.
  • provides humor and a change of pace in the daily routine of living.
  • has the potential to transcend and transform the ordinary.

Enhances Learning
  • opens us up to parts of ourselves which are generally hidden–and inaccessible, i.e. the right brain and the unconscious.
  • enables us to makes mistakes and to ‘play’ with ideas in a non–judgemental context.
  • combats tediousness, boredom and passivity; play attracts our attention, maintains it, and carries it further.
  • increases energy which in turn releases our creative potential.
  • provides access to a way of knowing. which circumvents written and spoken language.
  • helps us to see things in fresh new ways.

Builds group cohesion and morale
  • a universal language which brings people together from all walks of life.
  • a time of sharing in which all players are equal; a great equalizer, which fosters the breakdown of personal ethnic, language, generational and social barriers
  • enables people to be more spontaneous and open with each other
  • helps us transcend our individual selves to connect with others; creates a sense of shared purpose and community

Affirmation and Resistance
  • invites transgression of conventional constraints
  • affirms the possibility of a better world, and includes the potential for changing the present one
  • creates a new sensibility, new ways of seeing, hearing, and feeling through which new and transcendent cultural symbols can be formulated.
  • sustains and affirms the possibility of freedom; total freedom exists in each spontaneous moment.
  • “I think play is the first step anyone must take from bondage to freedom .... play as radical conciousness means we see all our games as games; then we can play them, alter them, or play something else.” (Harvey Cox, 1973)
  • liberates us from authority; Play challenges the dominant reality and upsets the status quo.
  • play is for its own sakes it cannot be commanded or controlled by outside forces.
  • play and external control are antithetical. As the mechanized factory system gained in economic importance, work and play, production and idleness, work–time and free–time became separate entitites. Play and free time (for the working class) were subsumed by the work ethic.
  • an assertive, expressive act through which individuals may expand their personal power and exert a degree of control over their immediatf surroundings. Play is not ease to inject into serious, time–pressured work or classroom settings, yet when I dare to try it, l usually find it worth the risk. Here are some of the ways in which playful interventions can be usedi
  • to improve meetings and gatherings.
  • as group openers: to create an accepting and friendly climate, to help people meet each other, and begin their work together.
  • as energizers and tension–relievers: when group members are sluggish and the work is bogged down; when caffeine breaks are no longer effective, and when boredom has extinguished enthusiasm.
  • for group closure: to celebrate the group’s work, to review what has been accomplished, to affirm commitment to the group’s goals, to provide a spiritual sense of bonding before departure.
  • in opening people up to learning: increasing involvement, motivation and energy, encouraging creative thinking and problem–solving.
  • as a form of satire, resistance and protest, from personal survival to the picket line. Dale Spender described it as the “delight of defiance,” when women first learned that acting on anger not only felt good but had positive repercussions.
  • through humour and the ability to laugh at our foibles we permit the release of tension and stress, (on the job, in stuck elevators, and in stalled metros).

Reprinted from Upstream Journal, Septembert 1986 issue.

Published in the Connexions Digest, Volume 11, Number, 1, Spring (April) 1987



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