Adults play, too

That title is almost too obvious for me to write, bordering on the plain ridiculous.

Of course we do.

Even so, I still regularly have to explain that I’m particularly interested in the (sometimes invisible or even ) play of adults.

When I founded CounterPlay, I hoped to create a space where adults could meet and play together (and yes, this was definitely also driven by my own longing for such a space). I wanted to cultivate a play community that could, ideally, transgress borders, and encourage people to explore the role of play in all aspects of our lives. Some of those adults would then bring their experiences and ideas from CounterPlay into their work with children (and thank you for that!), but CounterPlay itself was and is always more concerned with the play of adults.

Sure, play is important for children, but not so much because they are children. It’s important because children are human, too, and play is essentially a mode of being human and a form of human expression. To play is to explore, insist on and sometimes question the formation of our humanity.

I’m skeptical about all the popular “recipes” for children to grow up (fast!) in a certain way, to learn specific things according to detailed procedures that should somehow magically be valid for all children.

I think I am more intrigued by being than becoming, just like I am more attracted to process than result, which is probably also why I keep insisting that we examine how we get into play, not what we get out of play. I think we miss out on essential components of our existence when we maintain that everything must have a quantifiable outcome. We instrumentalize ourself to death. Maybe you remember my anger with the “ROI regime“?

I have argued before that if play can somehow help us, if we can indeed “get something out of play”, it is that we learn to live more playfully:

The best reason for playing, I believe, is that you get better at it, and you connect more deeply with your playful self. That’s the purpose, that’s the reward, that’s what we should be pursuing.

I think Fink was right when he, in Oasis of Happiness, argued that we, as humans, “live in the prospect of the future. We conceive the present as a preparation, as a station along the way, as a way of passage”, whereas “play gives us the present”.

I’m not sure play can teach us things that we can then go on to apply or implement in various domains, I question the “transfer” value of play, but I do believe, firmly, that if we continue to play, throughout our lives, and to approach the world playfully, everything changes. Many good, compelling arguments have been made for what we can learn from play – such as creativity, imagination, empathy and so on – but I feel increasingly convinced that we will only be able to fully enjoy those skills when we play. Maybe it’s a bit like learning to speak a foreign language (in my case French and German) and then stop speaking that language for years, only to discover that it has tragically disappeared when you suddenly need it. It only stays with us if we keep it active, if we make it part of our lives – of our identies, maybe even.

When we play, we become better at playing and we may also, in those moments of playfulness, be better at other things, too, because we are present.

In my PhD project, I will continue along these lines, and I will mainly invite adults to join the playgrounds (but don’t worry, I’m sure there will also be opportunities for children to play along).

An open invitation

I recently wrote the first post about my upcoming PhD project, “Designing for Playful Democratic Participation”, which I’m extremely excited about. I ended the post with one of my Freire quotes and an invitation to play along:

“For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other”

Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

While I am already exceptionally grateful for this opportunity, it will all mean far, far more to me if a host of travel companions will join me.

I know so many brilliant people who have endured the struggles of PhD projects. All experiences are different, of course, but there seems to be a pattern of loneliness, a realization that doing a PhD project is a solitary affair.

Does it really have to be?

I’m aware that this is my project, that it is me who have to do the work, and that there will be periods of hiding away somewhere, striving to meet some quota of words to be written.

That’s a given, I guess, and I’m fine with that.

To an extent.

Only to an extent, because while I accept the premise that this is also an education for me to become a proper researcher, I intend for it to be much more than just that. Let it be a project that becomes meaningful, helpful and valuable to more people, the more the better.

The way I have worked over the past decade was always a delicate balance between being on my own while having an urge to cultivate communities and co-create shared experiences. I was self-employed and as a natural consequence of that, I was often left alone with the final decisions and the final responsibility. At the same time, I was never alone, because I always had friends embarking on these journeys with me. Everything I’ve ever done, including my biggest project, CounterPlay, only ever meant anything when there was a shared ownership and when someone else started building, expanding and sometimes – to my delight – subverting my ideas.

Why should a PhD project be any different? Should it?

I have been very inspired by reading Lynne Segal’s beautiful “Radical Happiness Moments of Collective Joy“:

Acknowledging the sadness of others, doing work we find interesting, sharing friendship and love through good times and bad while facing the tribulations life hurls at us, with help when we need it, seems to me the essence of pursuing any good life. As the world becomes an ever lonelier place, it is sustaining relationships, in whatever form they take, which must become ever more important. An act of defiance, even.

Segal, Lynne. Radical Happiness

I’m always deeply touched by this quote, because it resonates on the deepest, most fundamental level. There is no good life, no meaningful existence without sharing friendship and love.

That obviously goes for a PhD project as well, and I’ll do my best to keep it open: I’ll be the one with the re-sponsibility and I’ll drive the project forward, but always in an ongoing, open dialogue, where you are all more than welcome to play along, to ask questions, and to challenge my always-rough ideas.

I don’t know exactly how, but that’s my modus operandi, right? That’s just part of the fun and something I’ll figure out along the way – with all of you, of course.

Welcome to my PhD project

Welcome!

With this first post, I kick off my PhD blog, where I aim to share news about my project, “Designing for Playful Democratic Participation”, whenever I can. The project starts on December 1st and will be situated in the Lab for Social Design at Designschool Kolding. In the project, I will explore play as democratic participation within the context of junk playground settings (if you want to read the actual application, it’s available here).

Every post on this blog is an invitation to join the conversation and play along, as I sincerely hope this is the beginning of not just a project for me, but for a much larger community.

Background

The paths we follow are never straightforward or linear, there is no train that will take us straight to the destination. On the contrary, our lives are messy, unpredictable and chaotic – just like the world in which we exist.

“There is no order here and there is no middle ground, Nothing can be predicted and nothing can be planned”

Nick Cave, “Fireflies

To me, that’s a given, a basic premise and, in fact, a positive thing. That’s what makes for all the adventures I so immensely cherish (and I can guarantee it will also be a recurring theme in my project).

Once we look back over the actions, decisions and coincidences that have shaped our path, it happens that a more or less clear pattern emerges. For me, that pattern is a question I have asked over and over, with no easy answer ever in sight: how do we, as human beings, develop confidence in our own agency, how do we learn that the world could be different and that we all have some capacity to make it so? How do we, individually and collectively, become empowered to act in the world – to instigate change in the world?

Over the years, especially while with the CounterPlay community, I have observed something intriguing in this regard: in play, people experience agency, pushing their curiosity and imagination to explore how the world and their lives might be different. The festival was always also an attempt at exploring exactly that – how can play allow and inspire us to live differently together and what might a more playful society look like? I am reminded of Butler’s notion that “even the political question, how ought we to live together? depends upon an organization of life that makes it possible to entertain those questions meaningfully.” These playful interactions, the setting, the atmosphere and the community apparently provided such an “organization of life”. As my dear friend Helle (and, as it happens, now also my co-supervisor) wrote about CounterPlay in International Journal of Play:

“The festival invites you to surrender to the movement of play and to place faith in the future, without knowing where play will take you. In this way, the play festival inspires hope for the future of play and incites ‘play courage’ in all, because play is first and foremost with and for its participants.”

Helle Marie Skovbjerg, International Journal of Play

In contrast, “normal” democratic participation ever so often seems detached from our daily lives, our dreams and desires. As I recently wrote in “Framing Play Design”, “If the current crisis of democracy is indeed a crisis of participation, it seems likely that this is in turn caused by a crisis of imagination. We have apparently been unable to adequately reimagine a set of democratic participatory practices that are meaningful in contemporary society.”.

This is the paradox at the heart of my PhD project: we know how to engage in deep, sincere investigations of new ways of living together that are driven by our mutual dreams and desires, but such vitality is all too often absent in the more formalized democratic institutions and processes.

This is what’s puzzling me and what I will try to approach from three different (and very broad!) theoretical domains: play, democracy and design studies. In the following posts, I’ll introduce some of the main thoughts, ideas and concepts inspiring me and the project.

An open invitation

If there is any part of this you find interesting, if you see opportunities in playing along or if you think I’m gravely mistaken, please get in touch. Whichever slightly interesting thing I have ever managed to do, I was only able to do so because I’ve been fortunate enough to work with people smarter than me. For it is indeed as Freire wrote:

“For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other”

Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Each other.

Let’s play well together.