Mathias Poulsen

Play Activist & Researcher @ Designskolen Kolding

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).


2 responses to “Adults play, too”

  1. Ofer Ravid avatar
    Ofer Ravid

    This is really interesting and I mostly agree with you. I think a better metaphor for playfulness is that of a muscle. If we stop using a muscle it starts a process of atrophy and eventually degenerates. But if we use it daily and flex it and stretch it, it may become even more than utility – it can help us express ourselves, be more present physically, feel better etc. And it will be readily available all the time, you won’t need to “switch it on”. I think that people who engage with the world playfully become better at it and the benefits of play then become part of their everyday because play is one of their working muscles.

    I’d love to continue the discussion!
    Ofer Ravid

    1. mathiaspoulsen avatar

      Hi Ofer!

      Great to hear from you – thanks for commenting (I just saw your comment now).

      I agree with you, the muscle is a much better metaphor. In the beginning, we have to pay more attention to it, become aware of the possibilities, practice. In time, it becomes second nature, it can stay with us through life, though it withers without love and nurturing.

      Let’s *absolutely* continue this conversation, I love it!

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