In this post, I will argue that not only is play often fundamentally social, but also an essential component in creating connections between people and cultivating meaningful relationships and strong communities.
While play can indeed be a wonderful act of solitude, there is also something deeply fascinating about the social aspect of play. Play is immensely powerful when it creates deep connections between people, even strangers. We have probably all experienced this, and we know the feeling of barriers suddenly falling away. This particular power of play (to establish social bonds) is, however, sharply contrasted by the prevalent trend to evaluate everything based on the measurable outcome on an individual level:
What do *I* get out of this?
We are obsessed with this question, and tend to forget or ignore the things that might bring us closer together. Play can remind us that we always need to find the right balance between “me” and “us,” between the individual and the community. Play only works if we’re simultaneously aware of the needs of ourself and the other. It’s a dance, back and forth, looking into yourself and reaching out into the world.
Because of this dynamic, play is inherently democratic by nature. When I say “democratic,” I don’t mean that you vote every four years, or that more or less qualified people get to make all the decisions. Rather, everyone needs to play a part to shape the way we play together. For play to sustain the “continuation desire” described by Stuart Brown, for us to wish to keep playing, play can’t be dictatorial.
When we play, we share the responsibility, and we need to be present in the moment, right here, right now. You are open to the world, aware, listening, anticipating, embracing what the other person brings. This is rarely more visible than in the eyes of people playing with each other. The way they shine, the pure joy, this is as close to magic as it gets.
In this sense, play becomes a demonstration of empathy, an exploration of being together in ways that respect us all. Play is a lesson in humanity, a gentle reminder of all the things we have in common across age groups, nationalities, religions, socio-cultural backgrounds and other differences that usually keep us apart.
Play is arguably the single most important path to creating deep, lasting bonds between strangers. If you want to bring people together, to cultivate an inclusive atmosphere, begin by nurturing a playful culture. This is no less true in the workplace, where we usually tend to consider play frivolous or even a threat to productivity and managerial control. While play may inspire you to embark on a path where you risk taking detours and don’t know the exact destination, it will also bring to closer to your colleagues along the way. You will smile and laugh together, and in turn you will dare to be more curious, more creative, more courageous, you will trust each other, stand up for your ideas and, in short, be better, feel better.
When I ponder upon my own personal and professional relationships – colleagues, friends, family, partner – the most meaningful ones are clearly the ones that allow and inspire us to be playful together. In these situations, we don’t need to pretend to be someone else, we don’t take ourselves too seriously, we don’t try to control each other or the outcome of our interaction.
“When we are playing together, despite our differences, we celebrate a transcendent sameness, a unity that underlines the illusion of our separateness. You could call this an act of love – an enacted love that lets us keep the game going. Many acts of love, in fact, many acts of compassion, caring, trust, assurance.” (Bernie DeKoven, A Playful Path)
I wouldn’t say my significant other and I play a lot, if we think of play as an activity. We rarely play games, we don’t say “let’s play,” but our interactions are predominantly playful. As any other couple, we have problems, we live with frustration, fear and disease, but we do so playfully. It’s in the small, everyday things: the silly conversations, the questions that make no sense, creating our own small parallel universes, awkward dancing in the kitchen, surprising each other for the sake of the experience, appreciating the moment, smiling, laughing.
I don’t play every day, not at all, but I try to make my everyday life as playful as possible. “Immer ein Abenteuer” an old German man once told me, and it’s true: life IS an adventure – if you allow it to be. I try to remain open to the unforeseen, to the people I meet through life, to my own imagination and curiosity. I struggle to avoid falling prey to the looming over-seriousness, the (also imagined) demands from society and the bigger, frightening events we see in the media every day.
Play deprivation is a very real threat. It is becoming increasingly apparent that when I’m playful, I am the best version of me where I can actually make a difference. To me, the key to living the most fulfilling and playful life is in the interactions with the people I meet. I can’t stay playful alone.
Try it out, sooner rather than later. Invite your colleagues, family, friends or your significant other to embrace their inner playfulness together with you. You don’t need to play, you just need to feel playful.
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