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Go Play! You Can Read This Later.

December 17, 2018
by Barry Bergman

Back already? Okay then, read on.

It was during the Great Malaise of the Jimmy Carter years that Zippy the Pinhead, clown prince of non sequiturs, first wondered, “Are we having fun yet?” The questioner was a simpleton, but time has endowed his question with the ring of profundity.

Or is that an alarm bell? A warning from our inner child to slow down, ease off, throw our hands in the air like we just don’t care?

Listen up, America. We are failing at play.

We’re not playing enough. And when we do play, we’re not playful enough. Even your cat may wish you were, well, friskier. Consider that laser pointer. In what universe does a ghostly red dot, caroming helter-skelter off the walls and furniture, resemble a scared, succulent mouse?

How can we square the pointlessness of play with the fact that it is widely understood to be rooted in evolution?

Play is a tricky proposition—elastic as Silly Putty and tougher to nail to the wall. Merriam-Webster lists seven senses for play as a noun, ten as a verb. Serious investigators of play, such as the psychologist Gordon Burghardt, have argued ad nauseam over a scientific definition. According to Burghardt’s criteria, “much of our behavior—from gourmet cooking to doodling—can be viewed as play.” And so, he suggests, can that of fish, insects, reptiles, and mollusks. (Yes, mollusks.)

Scott Eberle, a Ph.D. in American intellectual history and former editor of the peer-reviewed American Journal of Play, is among the academy’s would-be Harry Potters, cerebral Seekers who have set their sights on catching the Golden Snitch, that elusive definition of play on which the players themselves can agree. But mere Muggles keep losing it in the lights.

“The very abundance of definitions,” Eberle has written, “makes choosing among them difficult; more than one expert has termed the enterprise ‘futile.’” Now a strategist for the Global Science of Play Institute, he spoke at a two-day conference, “The Importance of Being Playful,” held on the UC Berkeley campus in 2012. (Play, he explained, is not a simple thing but “a moving target.”) Topics ranged from “Play as a Social and Political Catalyst” to “Seriousness and Play Among the Insects.”

Of course, any highlight reel of the scholarly field of play needs to recognize anthropologist Garry Chick for what, in a more just world, would be enshrined as The Quote. “We think that we know some things about play,” Chick told the Association for the Study of Play at its 1998 gathering, “and it is probable that some of the things that we know are actually true.”

Nobody said this would be easy.

is multidimensional,” observes Paula Fass, a Berkeley emeritus professor of history who’s devoted her career to studying childhood. “There are different kinds of play,” from relaxation to self-expression to imagination. “There are different meanings to play. And obviously, the balances among those different meanings will change over time.”

Balance itself is the point of play for Derek Van Rheenen, director of Berkeley’s Cultural Studies of Sport in the Graduate School of Education master’s program. A one-time star defender in the American Professional Soccer League, he moved gracefully from soccer to scholarship. Under the tutelage of the legendary Berkeley folklorist Alan Dundes, Van Rheenen did his graduate dissertation on hopscotch, to illustrate, he wrote, “how the simple lines of a children’s game have served to separate boys from girls, institutionalizing the binary construction of gender and sexuality within the 20th century.”

Creative bushwhacking can open a path to new worlds—new art forms, new technologies. That’s why so many Silicon Valley firms encourage on-the-job play.

Surprisingly, Van Rheenen, who captained the Cal men’s soccer squad in 1986 and now, as director of the Athletic Study Center, works closely with new generations of Golden Bears in multiple sports, doesn’t believe organized sports even count as true play. “Some would argue that playing a game or a sport is actually an oxymoron,” he says. Traditional children’s games, he wrote in his 600-plus-page thesis, “fall somewhere between the purity of aesthetic play and the tyranny of commodified sport.”

For Van Rheenen, play is about the “flow state,” a concept proposed by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a state non-academics often call “being in the zone.” See ball, hit ball. Be here now. “You are at one with the universe,” Van Rheenen explains. “It’s very kind of Zen, very Buddhist.”

The point, then, is a kind of pointlessness. But how can we square pointlessness with the fact that play is widely understood to be rooted in evolution? That “fun,” human and otherwise (did you know, by the way, that rats laugh when they play?) may feel like “now” but serves an undeniable purpose? That play is how kittens, puppies, and babies alike learn the skills they’ll need to thrive as adults?

And if, by playing, we’re actively building the future—not just our own, but that of the rest of our species, whether Homo sapiens or Felis catus—aren’t we actually doing work? Or are we still having fun?

“My general view is that childhood is a way that evolution resolves what people in computer science sometimes call the ‘explore or exploit’ trade-off,” says Alison Gopnik, a Berkeley professor of psychology and philosophy who leads a cognitive development lab on campus. That trade-off poses the choice of venturing into the wilderness of new, untested strategies or sticking with those that have worked before. Exploring is inefficient, since the road less taken often dumps us in dead ends, hungry and empty-handed. But creative bushwhacking can also open a path to new worlds—new insights, new art forms, new technologies. That’s why so many Silicon Valley firms encourage unstructured, on-the-job play.

“Obviously, play is on the explore side of that dichotomy,” says Gopnik, who is known beyond the academy for her writings in The Atlantic, her regular columns in The Wall Street Journal, and popular books such as The Scientist in the Crib and The Philosophical Baby. “And what I think is that childhood across many different species is a way of having a period when you don’t have to worry about goal direction, because you’re being taken care of. That’s almost the definition of what childhood is, that immature period where other people take care of you. But then what you get to do is this kind of exploration, and you can take the things you’ve discovered and use them as an adult.”

Which raises questions: How are children managing (and being managed) on the immaturity front? And how are former children, from students to senior citizens, handling the explore/exploit trade-off balance? These are vital questions, deserving of sober consideration.

First, though, can we talk about kittens?

to neuroscientists, animal behaviorists, unsurprisingly, are less focused on what Mikel Delgado calls “the inner experience of play” than on how play in fledgling four-leggeds gives them the tools they’ll need as adults—assuming, of course, they don’t have people to keep them rolling in canned cuisine and clean linens. Delgado is a recent Cal psychology Ph.D. who gained an ardent following for her creative experiments with the campus’s free-ranging fox squirrels—employing brightly painted and microchipped hazelnuts, for example, to study patterns of hiding and, yes, stealing food. She is now a postdoc at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and a professional cat behavior consultant.

“Ironically, I think people are not playful enough when they play with their cats,” says Delgado, who cheerfully admits to being “obsessed with cats my whole life”—although it took dropping out of college, heading west to play bass guitar in a punk band, and finding her way back to academia before cats became her career.

Play serves a number of functions in nonhuman youth: practice for predation, social enhancement, development of motor skills. It’s common to see squirrels playing on a fallen branch, Delgado says, “and I think they’re probably learning about the properties of a branch. The branch is rocking, they’re in a safe environment—they’re not in a tree, but they’re stepping on a branch that fell off a tree.”

As for cats, their play behavior has everything to do with predation, especially once they’re past the wobbly kitten stage. And people, as Delgado knows both from her days as a shelter volunteer and her current consulting work, don’t always get that feline enrichment takes more than opposable thumbs.

“One thing I saw a lot when I worked in the shelter was people taking a stick toy and poking the cat—waving it in their face, touching them with it. And sometimes the cat would react because they were irritated and the owner would think, ‘Oh, he’s reacting, I should keep poking him,’” instead of thinking, What would a rodent do?

And while some cat behaviorists are “anti–laser toy,” Delgado just thinks cats need other, physical toys as well. “They like toys that are small. They like toys that are furry.” And—the better to mimic the predatory experience—they like toys that move away and, as with formerly living rodents, “show some sign of decomposition.”

It’s also important—and this is one big objection to laser pointers—to let the animal catch the toy… eventually. “I often jokingly call cat play ‘kitty foreplay,’” Delgado says. “Because people want to wave the toy around and have the cat just jump around and get tired and be done. The cat wants to spend a lot of time watching the toy, stalking, building up to the pounce—and we just want them to pounce and get it over with and, you know, ‘Can I go back to watching my television program now?’”

In defense of our species, most humans don’t spend their days curled in a ball, sleeping and shedding. We have responsibilities. There are bills to pay, exams to pass, jobs and families and Twitter to look after. In the course of our everyday lives, vegging out is often as close to playing as we’re likely to get.

“The challenge that we have as adults,” Gopnik points out, “is how do we switch back and forth from those things that we have to do—the kind of exploit, goal-directed projects—and being able to have the same kind of creativity and openness that we have as children when we play.”

then, child’s play ain’t what it used to be. “Children’s games have become so structured, so controlled, so organized that it is in many ways taking away the creativity and fantasy available to students,” says Van Rheenen. “People will say—students I work with will say—‘I don’t feel like I’m playing my sport at all. I feel like it’s a job. I don’t like it. It’s a means to an end. It’s a scholarship. I don’t feel like I have a choice in the matter—if I stop playing, I won’t be here.’ So that’s not play.”

It wasn’t so long ago that childhood was more about work than play (see Twist, Oliver, et al.). “Most historians of childhood,” says Fass—who cites her credentials both “as a historian and as a mother”—“argue that play comes into the picture only in the 19th century. The idea that children need to play, that play is an essential part of being a child, really happened as the emphasis on work, certainly among middle-class children, was vastly reduced.”

Play serves a number of functions in nonhuman youth: practice for predation, social enhancement, development of motor skills.

That happy development, she adds, “grows out of an Enlightenment view, both of philosophy and psychology,” of children’s need for self-expression. “The whole idea of a kindergarten, when it was first proposed in the late 19th century, was that you’d have a garden of playfulness, where children were not learning, but would have arenas within which they could play.”

Fass believes the pendulum has swung back a bit. “And I think the best example of that is the fact that we’re now talking about schooling for younger and younger children,” she says. “And structured schooling, so that they start learning the alphabet by the time they’re 3 years old and they’re going to nursery school.”

And there it is. That word. Structure. Like Van Rheenen, Fass is disturbed by what she sees as tightening constraints on the play of children and students. It’s a trend she ascribes to the sharp increase in working mothers, to growing angst over untended kids—among her published books is Kidnapped: Child Abduction in America—and to heightened pressure to succeed in the global marketplace, beginning in toddlerhood and continuing on through higher ed.

“I do think there’s been a loss—to the individual, and to the culture,” Fass says. “I’d much prefer to see more playfulness as part of our children’s lives, and as part of students’ lives.”

Van Rheenen, for his part, gives both sports and scholarship failing grades when it comes to play. In athletics, he explains, “the currency is wins and losses, just as in the academic realm it’s grades.” Play, as he conceives it, is “unproductive, in the sense that not only is it juxtaposed with work, but that the motivation is entirely intrinsic, that there is, in theory, no extrinsic gain. Which is a very hard sell in our culture, because everything has to be for something.”

Just the same, flow is flow. Go with it. (No, really, we’ll wait.) The zone, Grasshopper, is within you.

“Rather than preschools being more like school,” Professor Gopnik suggests, “universities should be more like preschool.”

“I would argue that some of the most gifted intellectuals on campus, here and elsewhere, have found a way of playing,” Van Rheenen says. “Because flow in the play state is not just athletics. Surgeons report it, musicians report it, artists report it … I would guess that these are individuals that have found states of creativity that are just ratcheted up a notch, that are transformative.”

Gopnik, a cognitive scientist, reported her own adventures in transformative flow in an Atlantic essay titled “How an 18th-Century Philosopher Helped Solve My Midlife Crisis.” It’s a compelling lesson in how following her intellectual bliss—the grown-up version of childlike creativity and openness—led her to “my salvation in … the sheer endless variety of human experience.”

She wishes students would learn the lesson. Among Berkeley faculty, she reports, “I think lots of us have had this experience where we say to an undergrad, ‘Here’s a project and I don’t know how it’s going to come out, and I want you to do something where there isn’t going to be any right answer’—and they’re terrified.” And as much as she wants them “to feel comfortable with exploration,” she fears their discomfort is getting worse, not better.

Gopnik recalls a commencement speech she gave at Cal. “I said, ‘You want to know if you’ve actually, really been at a university? It was that time when you had an exam the next morning but you’d just met a new boy, and instead of studying you spent all night talking about the meaning of life. Or the time you were supposed to do one assignment in the library and you stumbled on this other book that was really, really interesting that had nothing to do with the assignment…. Those are the times when you really got the spirit of what the university is all about.’”

She lets out a rueful laugh, looking back, perhaps, on a sea of blank faces. “I’m not sure it went down really well, actually.”

The irony, for Gopnik, is that “the more education becomes absolutely crucial for economic success, and the more there’s this fear that you’re going to fall off the ladder if you’re not succeeding educationally, the more difficult it is to have an education that does certain kinds of things that we’d want in play.”

America, the bell is tolling. Lighten up. Grasp less. This will not be on the midterm. Find your zone. Create more. Doodle.

She has an answer for this. “Rather than preschools being more like school,” Gopnik suggests, “universities should be more like preschool.”

Try telling that to today’s parents.

“The parents have got to get results,” says Paula Fass. “The professors make demands, as we know. And whereas in the 1920s”—an era she chronicled in The Damned and the Beautiful, her book about youth in the Jazz Age—“students could say ‘The hell with it, I don’t care about their demands,’ they can’t do that today. Because they have to get the grade. And the peers make such demands all the time, not just when you’re in their physical presence, but when you’re telling them everything you did that day on Facebook.”

Given that central paradox of play, then—its very nature as unproductive can lead to productive, even crucial outcomes—our national obsession with making the grade literally and figuratively may be a challenge in desperate need of Zen-like plans of attack, executed with all the fervor of a kitten assaulting a ball of yarn.

“If you think that the problems you’re facing are going to be pretty much like the problems that you’ve always faced in the past, then play may not be so important,” says Gopnik. “But if you think the problems you’re going to face are going to be unpredictable, variable, things that you don’t know about beforehand—the unknown unknown,” then that, she concludes, “would be an argument for saying that play is actually more significant and important now than it ever has been before.”

To repeat: Are we having fun yet?

America, the bell is tolling. Lighten up. Grasp less. This will not be on the midterm. There is no passing, no failing. No winning or losing. Experiment. Find your zone. Create more. Doodle more. What do we want? Play! When do we want it? Now! And if not now, soon. Your inner child isn’t getting any younger. So just, you know, do it.

And please, whatever you do, remember to let the cat catch the toy. 

Barry Bergman is alternately working and playing at writing a novel. He feels sure his inner child will return, eventually, with a better class of imaginary friends.

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