Played out. Thoughts about play in itself

By Albert Vinzens, February 2013

Play is neglected. It is taken away from children and thinkers are not interested in it.

© Sven Jungtow

The reference to play in itself initially follows a philosophical track. It is a reminder of Immanuel Kant who with his thing in itself sought to introduce a Copernican revolution in respect of the thinking. Such a revolution would in itself also be a good thing for play – here and now in Germany. During a car trip in the Alps, I recently saw a notice at the entrance to a mountain village with the depiction of a hedgehog. It said “Watch out” above the hedgehog. And below, it said in large letters: “Thank you from the Hedgehog Protection Society”. I’ll watch out, hedgehog, my friend, of course I’ll watch out, I thought as I drove on, but I don’t need the Hedgehog Protection Society for that. It suddenly seemed to me as if the hedgehog was on a mission for the Hedgehog Protection Society instead of for himself and his siblings. On this poster is seemed that it was not life which was the most important thing, but the institution behind it. 

Not just hedgehogs exist for their own sake

Not just hedgehogs but also play-happy children are faced by institutions which are not always well disposed towards them: neighbours demand quiet in their area at all times of the day and night. They would prefer to turn playgrounds into car parks for their cars. Teachers implacably set homework. No games after school! Stop that, if you please. Mums are also happy if their children’s clothes remain clean. Why play? Life, after all, is no game either – on the contrary. There comes a point where children no longer want to play, or go out or anything. It is like with the elephants: if they were tethered to a post at an early enough age, they remain standing quietly and dutifully next to the puny fastening even once they have turned into powerful giants.

Play in our cities – and the situation is not much better in the country – is no longer a pleasure but miserably stressful. Keeping our children occupied with the wrong sorts of things robs them of time and pleasure. Instead of play they are told to sit still. Education right from the beginning means sitting still right from the beginning. In curricula play has degenerated into a springboard for learning. Playing and learning, it is claimed, are two sides of the same coin.

Developmental psychology all too often uses the concept of play to engage in academic soliloquies. The hymns of praise to play from neurobiologists are, in the light of day, hymns to neural networks. We are faced with the hedgehog protection syndrome. Be they professors, teachers or entrepreneurs – they are on a false mission. When they talk about play that is precisely what they are not talking about. But anyone who engages in holy things has no choice but to be selective.

Play beyond rules and regulations

Schools are institutions, kindergartens increasingly also. In the wake of all the regulations their vitality threatens to disappear while the rules grow. Their trouble meanwhile determines education from universities down to crèches. But students, pupils and small children are not machines, they are organisms, living individuals. Don’t they want to live, sometimes with rules, sometimes without, fast and wild, but also slowly and languorously, everything, now, completely? Is play not the greatest secret pleasure despite all the prophets of doom forecasting play fatigue? The greatest longing, statistically, of pupils today is the longing for time. Time is used up for learning, like the air in the rooms where such learning predominates. But time and space are the humus on which play thrives. Without these fundamental categories of life there is no play. Learning can be speeded up, optimised, corrupted.

Play works differently. Play is the maximum. Play is not gradable as suggested by “good – better – best” a.k.a. “play – learning – knowledge”. The time and space which is needed for play should be made available by schools without compromise. Play with its flexible rules entices the living in and around us to come out. School regulations – even if there are probably no longer as many as in Nietzsche’s time in Schulpforta, where they consisted of 247 paragraphs – do not as a rule do this.

Profound thoughts about play have become as rare as pupils who ask questions. Reflecting on play is a research field which is open to everyone, not just play theorists and Nobel Prize winners. When thinking about play, questions are often more important than answers. What for Goethe represented the greatest happiness – namely researching what could be researched and quietly venerating what could not – contradicts today’s competence culture. Thinking about play is  being put through the mill from all sides. The concepts are imprecise, misleading, unusable, melt away into nothingness while at the same time being kept on much too short a leash. They wear out and grind to a halt. Even an engine requires some play in its parts to function properly, something which, incidentally, no computer, however precise, can calculate. An engine which is adjusted too loosely or too tightly will go wrong. The play in its parts must be precisely adjusted by human hand on the basis of a mixture of fine motor skills and gut feeling. If the mechanic adjusts the play too tightly or too loosely, the engines fail or they grind to a halt as the pistons seize up. A write off, straight away.

Where are the precision engineers of play? Instead of the fine adjustments being undertaken, the whole matter is talked to death. That is a concrete problem. People want to conceptualise everything in play. Deduce it, induce it – just as long as it’s tied down. No overtones, please – that is the message not just in the music industry but also here. The people who like thinking which meanders along and opens up new fields of wisdom are increasingly rare. What thinkers experienced for centuries as an energy input in their pursuit of truth, love, freedom, life, play, namely the power of the relational imponderables of thought, is ignored. The conductor Sergiu Celibidache once said that we commonly hear what music is not. It is no different with play. We commonly see what play is not.

The human being is play

But what remains when we desist from the linguistic confusion around play? What if we only referred to play where play really exists? The answer would presumably be a long silence. What might a thinking look like which has taken leave of the ideologies of play and seeks to divine play as being in the nature of the human being? Something would be in store for such thinking similar to what happened to Friedrich Schiller in his time; in his philosophical letters on the aesthetic education of the human being, he overcame the melancholia of his contemporaries and after a long conflict with the follies around him – which curiously correlate with the insanities of today – invented words for play whose profundity would be difficult to surpass. Schiller’s project – to understand human beings as spiritual beings despite their being caught up in their instinctive drives – found a happy ending in his reflections on play, filling his treatise with life and building bridges between spirit and matter. We should connect to this project, here and now. People like to translate Schiller’s “play instinct” with “flow”. Play was flow because it let the competitors forget space and time, be it in basketball or football or those long-distance swimmers who at the Olympics some years ago raced to the finish and then carried on for another two lengths at full speed. It is undoubtedly the case that in flow people come close to play; it is no longer a matter of winning, the players are taken hold of by something higher. But play is not flow. Flow is vitality beyond ecstasy in transcendental bliss. Play is more.

Play is the look in the eyes of a child through whose mind an idea flashes which it experiences as a reality before desire has moved the slightest muscle. Play is the young trout which shoots boisterously through the water before it disappears into the mouth of a predator. Play is when a small child pours water into a empty toilet roll and is well and truly flabbergasted because it flows out of the bottom. Play is the quiet exhalation on a summit which a person has reached although he had no intention of climbing it.

Play is the rest in a Schubert quartet – the music dies away and the wings of the spirit start to beat. Play is the relationship between a child and someone or something who or which irrationally dotes on this little person.

Play is the most beautiful of all infectious diseases. Perhaps we will be asked at the Last Judgement not what good or bad deeds we performed, but where we did or did not play.

About the author: Albert Vinzens is a philosopher, author, alpinist and father of four children. He is a lecturer at the Rudolf Steiner Institute Kassel and holds a lectureship in anthropology and education at the University of Innsbruck. The book Lass die Kinder spielen (Let the children play) edited by him was published in 2011.