Psychologists tell us that by age four, children are very good at differentiating playing from fighting. But, what about those events that fall in the middle, play-fighting and rough-and-tumble play? Can fighting be playful?
I gave Droopy his name when he first appeared outside my office window at the National Institute for Play headquarters nearly ten years ago. He’s old for a wild crow. An injured wing made him easy to pick out as a youngster but has not seemed to hinder him since. He’s raised a brood each year with a crow version of aggressive mentoring and attentive tough love. Crows brood cooperatively and for long periods, and so crow young get plenty of education and instruction from a diverse faculty.
To stand at the brink of Niagara Falls—sun shining through the transparent water, the mist rising, the roar underneath, a rainbow overhead—is to experience a beauty so humbling that philosophers and painters describe this dizzying, unsettling moment as “the sublime.” While viewing the Falls, not many can suppress the overpowering thought of how the rushing current would easily sweep them away. Over the years not a few have tested this notion, but only a few have survived. Some have plunged in for fame and fortune, and for play, too.
While in Seattle for a conference a couple of years ago, I ditched the scheduled luncheon and scooted over to the EMP Museum, a flashy, entertaining, interactive museum devoted to music, popular culture, and science fiction. When I went down to the basement annex, I found the Science Fiction Hall of Fame packed, wall-to-wall, with deeply absorbed science-fiction fans, some in alien makeup or mocked-up space suits. I never counted myself as one of these fans.
Less than a minute into my scheduled interview with world-renowned sculptor Albert Paley, we knew we had a problem. I wanted to talk about how he played as a child, but Paley wanted to know what I meant by play. And just like that he became the interviewer and I was the one reaching for answers. It’s a great question. I gave the answer most people interested in play can agree with: play is self-initiated, self-regulated, and self-limited. Play has certain characteristics and we know what play is not.
I’m a bit of a mossback when it comes to language. Specialized usages and jargon set my teeth on edge. So when I overheard the rent-a-cop at the county fair lean into his walkie-talkie with “what’s your six?” when “where are you?” would do perfectly well, I started to grind molar enamel. But of course to close one’s mind to innovation of this sort walls one off to the creativity of the evolving language.
Did you know that it’s rumored that a simple game helped counterintelligence agents discover Russian Spies? For decades, this classic psychology experiment based in a simple, funny, yet devilish game continues to demonstrate how play reveals the inner working of our minds. Try this.
Fun for me is talking with people at the top of their field, finding out how they got there, and hearing them trace the roots of their fascination. I like a good chat about the whys and wherefores of being a person who has fundamentally changed how we think about something.