Playing’s the Thing

When kids first start to play, say around one to two years old, if they are playing “with” another child they are really not playing together so much as playing next to each other.  They may watch what each other does, and they may imitate, but they don’t mingle their play.  Psychologists call this “parallel play.”

When kids get a little older, provided they are secure and wired up for it, they start to play with each other.  Your kid’s doll or truck starts to interact with the other kid’s toy.  Voila:  the birth of cooperative play.

In this three to five time of life, kids start to build cooperative play in their imaginations.  The toys may be props, but the play’s the thing.  Group play emerges.  Kids playing house, or dinosaurs, or doctor are creating a fragile world that hovers between them—just like grown-ups on a stage or doing improvisational comedy: it is a world of “yes and.”

The house of play is built by a child adding an idea to a pretend situation (i.e. “we have to operate”), and then another child accepting that idea and continuing to build upon what they have constructed together (“I’ll get the saw.”).  If you stop and think about it, a game of make-believe between children is quite amazing—a leap of imagination, imagery and language (a bit like that primitive bone spinning up into the air to transform into a space station in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey).

Thus in parenting, we must equip our children to be able to walk into a sandbox and be ready to listen to what the other children are saying, to watch what they are doing, to apprehend the game which is afoot, and to then indicate that they are in on it by saying and/or doing something appropriate to the pretend situation.

Confronted with an ongoing game of doctor, the child who sees that one kid is pretending to be injured and then says, “I have extra bandages,” will be accepted into the group and woven into the play.  Conversely, the insecure child who, disturbed by the pretend injury (or failing to read the game at all), then shouts out:  “I’m Darth Vader,” will be rejected from this group—not because they don’t “like” this child, but because the newcomer’s mis-attunement with the play the others have constructed threatens to tear it all down.

Play is a big part of how we learn to socially construct “reality.”  It relates to how grown-ups collaboratively build culture.  And the stakes go way up.  Consider what’s happening in Egypt, Libya and neighboring countries lately:  the masses no longer agree on the previous social order, and the would-be leader shouts things like “they’ve put drugs in the young people’s coffee,” but this is met with the counter-message that a new game is now being played.  And when bullets fail to make people play your game, you know you have lost your grip on the world’s playground.

And so we can see how fear and play relate to each other.  We fear being left out of the group, and so we “play” along, sometimes with really stupid games; and yet we also yearn to be authentic, loving, free and self-expressed—and from there we may find the courage to stand up for what we see to be our own real potential situation, at least if we dare to be our best Selves (i.e. equality, fairness, justice, compassion).  And when we are true to what we believe, AND we find solidarity with others, a new game spontaneously arises.

Consider how this might relate to moral development (i.e. greed vs. cooperative well-being) and to the personal choices we make (i.e. peer pressure toward drugs, meaningless sex, materialism vs. cooperative building of trust, fun, authenticity and caring for each other).

Americans may have invented the “social network” (although it seems that we really just took cooperative play to the next technological level), but it turns out to be people living under the yoke of oppression who took that wheel we created and realized that it wasn’t just a Lazy Susan, good for monetizing the super-sizing of our own faltering social game (“I had sushi.” “Like!”), but that it is also a tool for liberation.

As parents, we want to attune with our children from the very beginning (although it’s never too late to repair, so long as we learn to truly listen—to enter into the worldview and feelings of our children so that they, in turn, enter a space of shared trust with us, which results, over time, in security and the ability to engage with the wider world).

As parents we are also well-served to take another look at our own “control issues,” as perhaps those are the places where our lingering hurts, insecurities and mistrust trigger us to try and get everyone on our page—to play our game by our rules.  Ours is a country where “our way” is the highway (a nation alone in its car)—nowhere more so than in LA.

Could this control zone, this “we’re playing my game by my rules,” inadvertently be the very place where our children (not to mention colleagues, friends and lovers) feel that they have little choice but to shut us out or else risk seeing their own values, beliefs and fragile sense of self come crashing down?

Perhaps it’s better to build with blocks together, than to build another unneeded Trump Tower all my our lonely selves; maybe we all need a little more play-time, which turns out to be far less frivolous than we might have imagined.  Too much nose to the grindstone and soon nobody knows anything.

So, here’s to play—from our blogging to our parenting to our loving and our creating.

Namaste, BD

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12 Responses to “Playing’s the Thing”

  1. Mark Says:

    As a kid who used to be the King of the Non Sequitur, reading about it here reminds me what a poor tool it was to attempt to manage anxiety with at the time. But it later allowed me to have considerable compassion for others when they would use it.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Hi Mark, Yes, for me too the gold of compassion turns out to be in the poop of an often lonely and painful childhood. You are very right to remind us grown-ups who are trying to give and teach to others the very things we neither got nor were particularly gifted at early on that there is always the possibility for healing, growth, security and happiness (the big leap is often in allowing healing connections when trust was not built sturdy in the beginning of our lives). Here’s to the game of striving for kindness—where a kind word is a non-sequitur no longer. Namaste

  2. rebecca @ altared spaces Says:

    The rules are changing. That’s for sure. Your example of Darth Vader in the sandbox helps me to see why some kids have trouble belonging. It isn’t that they aren’t liked in and of themselves, it’s that they failed to see the game that was unfolding.

    In Egypt a new sandbox was able to be built. A new game established. Enough kids came to play that game that the old sandbox no longer mattered.

    I totally get it. Thanks for bringing it to the sandbox level for me. That’s where I live and hence will understand best.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Hi Rebecca, Here’s to playing the good games together, and to feeling safe enough to explain what we mean, and to trusting that we will listen to each other. All Good and Playful Wishes

  3. Liz Says:

    This makes me think of the importance of things like music and sports which (in my view) continue to develop a child’s ability to ‘tune in’ to what’s happening in a group and participate appropriately.

    It’s no accident I think that we speak of “playing” music because so many of the same elements that you identify are present: a fragile, shared world that can be built upon and developed further by skilled participants, or destroyed by unskilled or antagonistic ones.

    We all need more play in our lives, and the current trends of education (eliminating the arts, recess, etc.) don’t seem to be serving our children or the communities they will ultimately create.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Hi LIz, Yes you make good points on the deleterious effects of cutting arts programs for kids (as well as for the rest of us). In a hyper-competitive era, even sports can all too quickly become about wining at all costs rather than playing the game… and as for music, what a great and playful way to build something beautiful and fragile in the resonant spaces between us.

  4. TheKitchenWitch Says:

    “Yes, for me too the gold of compassion turns out to be in the poop of an often lonely and painful childhood…”

    Bruce, you are awesome.

    Miss D. used to overwhelm kids at the playground. She has ADHD and does not have a “low” button–neither for volume or speed. She’d just approach a kid like the Tasmanian devil on crack.

    Luckily, after lots of talking and role-playing (and some growing up), she’s gotten much better.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Hey KW, So maybe the big difference between our childhoods and those of our kids is that they at least have someone to talk to, someone who is trying to understand (even if it feels like most of the time we’re still not quite getting it).

      In any event, it’s nice to play this blogging game with people I really like. Namaste

      p.s. I waiver between daring, one right day, to attempt your grandma’s strawberry shortcake recipe and trusting that, like the grail, certain things can only be found by those not looking for them (but at least your explanation helped me deeply understand my former indifference to what had passed for an obviously hallowed sacrament)

  5. Christine @ Coffees & Commutes Says:

    Hi Bruce! I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot lately, so I’m so glad I had a moment to click over. We’ve been discussing adult play in the Mondo Beyondo Dream Lab and what it looks like and how important it is. But I also recently had a fierce debate with some friends in my social circle about the difference between guiding our children in the “right” direction and “controlling” their direction. It’s a fine line that I don’t think parents always understand.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Hi Christine, This makes me think of the dichotomy between our ego-selves and our deeper Selves.

      Maybe guiding our kids is like being the guard-rail on the twisting road of their early lives, while control is more like deciding where their lives should go?

      We all have dreams, to be sure, but sometimes I think that the ultimate form of play is to say “yes, and…” to whatever is actually happening in our lives, including radically accepting whoever our children happen to be.

      Either way, here’s to compassionate and loving play. Namaste

  6. BigLittleWolf Says:

    What an intriguing post. As I read and ponder, I think of the evolution beyond parenting, to adult play.

    The notion of parallel play makes me think about the way men and women (all too) often relate. In parallel worlds rather than intersecting or merging ones, in which not only our actions but our words are interpreted differently from intended.

    In thinking through the notions of play, I grew up in a time when boys played with boys, and girls played with girls. Unknowingly, yet one more reason that men and women don’t necessarily play so well together as friends?

    I’ve been happy to see my sons grow up with girls as friends as well as boys. Thinking through what you’ve written, I can picture the ways in which parallel play took place, and true interaction (regardless of gender) became commonplace. I wonder if their generation will do better than my own as a result, when it comes to social friendship play and romantic play. I’d like to think so.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Hi BL Wolf, Here’s to hoping that us older dogs might learn some playful tricks… particularly through somehow getting safe and supported enough (even it merely within ourselves) to venture anew into the same familiar playgrounds that once had a bit too much gender apartheid and fear-driven cruelty laced in when we were just starting to monkey around but now might prove good places to goof around for no good reason. All Playful Wishes either way.

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