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The Column is a monthly feature that follows the lives of creative people and explores the world of creativity.

Play: Being Creative
Mike de Sousa, Director, AbleStable

Play is often viewed as a pastime that is more for enjoyment and diversion rather than an activity of any significance. For many however, play is an ongoing and crucial element that is at the heart of their identity.

Defining Play

Defining play is more difficult than at first meets the eye. When my five year old son asks 'can we play?', his request appears simple. However, understanding what Play is takes some hard thinking. As well as taking a stab at defining play myself, I've provided a few additional definitions from others below. So here goes:

Play is the pleasure of a process that is active, self determined, and self controlled.
Play may be solitary or with others, may or may not use materials, often develops motor skills and movement memory, involves repetition and discovery, is open to develop in anyway, is a context of self expression, and is secure and free from personal conflict. Play does not produce a product, and there is often no purposeful goal. Play may be verbal or non-verbal.

In play we leap from idea to idea in a free manner that no other context provides. Play encourages the spark that ignites creativity.

The Roots of Play

My son is aware that for many adults, play appears a tiresome activity that children eventually 'grow out of'. But for now, play is the most pleasurable activity in his life, and like most children (and like many adults), he wants to play all the time.

In common with other animals, play forms a part of our world from a very early age.
The first kinds of play activities are cyclical. An infant may repeatedly drop a toy from their pushchair and observe the adult's ever growing frustration as they pick it up. Later, toddlers move to fantasy play, recasting personal experiences and their understanding of the world in symbolic form using toys.

Through play, children learn to symbolize and elaborate their own experience and understanding of the world, and their place in it.

The Loss of Play

I wonder why so many drift away from play as they enter adulthood. Psychologists and academics often put forward the notion that play is a childlike activity, and that as we grow older we more readily desire aims that cannot be achieved through play alone. As the production and exchange of goods and services becomes increasingly important in our day to day existence, so the status of play is demoted.

There are however people who continue to play throughout their lives. Some find a socially acceptable context for their desire for ongoing play. Musicians play. The advantage for them is that others perceive and enjoy their music as a product of their play. For many musicians however, it is the act, the process of playing that is of most importance to them. Other people who play but do not produce a product through their play are most often viewed as time wasters as their aimless play activities appear to do little to contribute towards their adult world.

The Power of Play

Play is a vital element of creativity, and creativity should be a part of all our lives. Those who are open to exploring their world and developing their play freely, travel along often unexpected but deeply rewarding paths.

The child is right when they see an adult as either fun, or as no fun at all. An adult who is fun to know from a child's perspective is defined by their ability and willingness to play. Are you fun, or no fun at all?

Footnote: Further Definitions of Play

Collins English Dictionary:

Play: to occupy oneself in (a sport or diversion), to amuse oneself in (a game).

Game: an amusement or pastime
for enjoyment.

Amusement qualifies both play and game. The word amuse is defined as:

Amuse: to keep pleasantly occupied; entertained; diverted.

Characteristics of play are "flexibility, non literality, positive affect, intrinsically motivated" (Krasnor & Pepler, 1980).

Add to the above list a preoccupation with means to a goal rather than the end in itself and remove intrinsic motivation (Smith, Takhvar, Gore, & Vollstedt, 1985).

Some play activities are marked by inflexibility, involuntary actions, and portrayal of negative affect, which negates the above list of characteristics (Sutton-Smith & Kelly-Byrne, 1984).

Play is intrinsically motivated, concerned with means rather than ends, is child-directed, nonliteral, free from externally dictated rule structures, rules that do exist can be modified by players, and requires active engagement of players (Rubin, Fein, & Vandenberg, 1983).

"An activity with or without materials in which bodily movement is an end in itself (Buhler, 1935)."

"A special from of violating fixity (Bruner, 1976)."

Animal play is "persistent manipulative or locomotor experimentation with objects, with the environment, with one's own body, and/or with other organisms (Fagan, 1976)."

Provisional definition of play is "behaviour formally resembling optimal learning by experimentation but not serving immediate adaptive goals such as maintenance, survival, or reproduction (Fagan, 1976)."

"Optimal generic learning by experimentation in a relaxed field (Fagan, 1976)."

Free self-expression for the pleasure of expression (Seashore)

The natural unfolding of the germinal leaves of childhood (Froebel).

The motor habits and spirit of the past persisting in the present (Hall).

Instinctive practice, without serious intent, of activities which will later be essential to life (Groos).

Activities not consciously performed for the sake of any result beyond themselves (Dewey).

The aimless expenditure of exuberant energy (Schiller).

Superfluous actions taking place instinctively in the absence of real actions.... Activity performed for the immediate gratification derived without regard for ulterior benefits (Spenser).

Activity in itself free, aimless, amusing, or diverting (Lazarus).

A type of play directed at the maintenance of joy (Shand).

An instinctive form of self-expression and emotional escape value (Dulles).

Highly motivated activity, which, as free from conflicts, is usually, though not always, pleasurable (Curti).

Types of Play

Piaget (1951)

Practice play; Symbolic play; Games with rules

Smilansky (1968)

Functional play; Constructive play; Dramatic play; Games with rules

Parten (1932) Categories of social participation:

Unoccupied; Solitary; Onlooker; Parallel; Associative; Cooperative

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Authors background
Mike de Sousa is the Director of AbleStable®. Mike has been commissioned as an artist, music composer, photographer, print and web site designer, and author.

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