Play helps us learn to survive – we need it now more than ever
In October 2019 we staged the exhibition Play Well at Wellcome Collection, London. The show, which examined the essential links between play and wellbeing, was halted three weeks before its closing date. There it slumbered in stasis while the outside world entered the new reality born of Covid-19.
Six months later, as cultural institutions started to blink back into being, the exhibition was finally deinstalled and its objects dispersed. As sad as it was to see it go, it was thought- provoking to revisit the theme in the context of the pandemic. What is the place of play in our brave new world, where the boundaries between home, work and life have blurred, and a new vocabulary of restriction put in place?
The premise of the exhibition was that play, rather than being the fidgety little sibling to the more serious business of work, is absolutely vital to our physical and psychological wellbeing. In addition to providing the pure benefit of having fun, the instinct to play is an important evolutionary device which is integral to how we develop as children and who we become as adults.
Play is how we first come to experience the world around us and establish our relationship to it and each other. As we grow, it is through play we learn to regulate our emotions, develop social bonds and empathise. It can furthermore help process trauma, increase resilience and teach us to tolerate uncertainty. All useful strategies of self-care in turbulent times.
However, perhaps the most crucial aspect of play right now is its role in stoking the imagination and firing up creativity. In his Book of Play, published to accompany the exhibition, the children’s author and poet Michael Rosen defines play as “trial and error without fear of failure”.
Play is an adaptable space of open- ended possibility in which we are free to imagine, tinker and problem-solve until our heart’s content, unshackled by external rules and constraints. Children excel at finding opportunities to play, but adults could do much better and Rosen’s book suggests 101 ways to seek more of it in our lives.
The exhibition profiled the importance of play from childhood through to adulthood. One of my favourite set of objects looked at the visible influence of kindergarten – arguably the first play-based system of early childhood education – in the creative practices of architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Buckminster Fuller, and artists from the Bauhaus.
While curating the show I was struck by the endless adaptability of play: from the transformative power of make-believe that can turn a stick into a horse, to the resilience, independence and joy to be gained by outdoor play, be it in the street or in a forest. Although initially somewhat dubious about video games, I came to marvel at the new platforms of collaboration, connection and creativity that digital play facilitates.
One thing that all of these examples have in common is the ability of play to allow us take charge of our immediate environment and transform it into a world of our own making. As we hurtle towards the festive season and the end of a traumatic year, perhaps it is time for us all to try and make time for some play in our lives. It might not only help us process and adapt to our present circumstances but also imagine and hope beyond them too.
As featured in OnOffice 153. Read the latest issue for free here.
Image: Kristina in Luganke, Eastern Ukraine, an hour after the shelling, Mark Neville, 2017