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  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

The State of Play Today

When I think about play today, the image of Tinkerbell comes to my mind. I saw a stage version of Peter Pan (Barrie, 1928) when I was a child and in a most memorable scene, I remember clapping wildly to help save Tinkerbell after she drank poison to save Peter Pan.

As she was dying and her light was fading, Peter Pan asks the children in the audience “Do you Believe in Fairies?” As the children screamed a resounding “Yes!,” Tinkerbell was resurrected by the wave of love and belief that poured onto the stage. (TV Acres, 2004, online)

Play seems to be in a similar state as Tinkerbell today. When I first began to contemplate my dissertation topic, an inner voice said: “Don’t let the light go out on play.” Play has been passed over, pushed aside in our “24/7,” two income households. Kids now have to schedule play dates instead of just going outside and playing whenever they feel like it.

We seem to have a problem with play. I’ve often heard angry parents admonishing errant children, caught playing instead of doing their homework: “what do you mean you were playing, you’ve got to get your priorities straight.” But I wonder, perhaps is it us, the angry parents of our current culture, whose priorities need to be examined? Maybe priorities shouldn’t always be straight, maybe we should be playing more, and perhaps veering off course is exactly what is needed at a time when we seem to be on a collision course with global ecological disaster. Unfortunately we are headed in a different direction, full steam ahead and hell bent on getting rid of play; this may have disastrous consequences. Play is disappearing from our schools, which have gutted their arts, music, and physical education programs—the logical left brain has taken over. Parents are concerned with what college their children will go to when the children are only in pre-school, so they push their children to excel and accomplish, instead of giving them some space in which to play. Grade-school children resemble pack animals as they trudge around with knapsacks filled with books, besieged with hours of homework. Slater (2001) feels that “when the planet hangs in the balance, it is in need of play” (p. 245). He notes that Joseph Chilton Pearce

proposes that this playful engaging of reality should not stop in childhood but should extend into adult life so that there is no “point at which play becomes real. It is all real and all play” (p. 200). In this continuity between play, imagination, and world, Pearce warns that “when we force the child to work prematurely with abstract thought, we break up the vital unity of self and world” (p. 188). Further “when a line forms between child play and adult work, the interaction between human and earth collapse” (p. 145). These thoughts would have us take play very seriously. (Slater, p. 245)

Our national policy of “leave no child behind,” seems to be admirable in its intention of making sure that all children are getting a good education. Yet, in my opinion, the method by which the government is going about this is all wrong. The consequences of standardized testing (which is how we seek to measure where children are) with its objective benchmarks may truly leave NO CHILD behind. If we think of the child archetypally, as a creative, imaginative essence, a wild card, that allows possibility to enter, this tagline has ominous overtones. Creativity and imagination do not easily lend themselves to standardized tests, and by seeking to standardize our schools, we may be extinguishing our greatest gifts. Surely these are consequences no one would want. We should be encouraging play, imagination, and art, teaching children how to be more embodied and creative. We should be helping children to learn how to learn, encouraging them to play more and not less, rather than filling them with facts for the “national exams.”

We seem to have lost track of what is really important, as we increasingly repress what are arguably our most essential resources: our play, our creativity, our ability to improvise and make things up is—these are our best hope for the future. Slater (2001) explains:

In play we practice granting space to imaginal life. This issue is important in acknowledging both the significance of play as a practice of soul-making in adult life, and as the ground of a child’s imaginal life—a ground we seem intent on intruding upon with early education into rational-logical thinking . . . . Play also refers to the space within which movement may take place, like the play of the wheel . . . . Jung expressed the following view: “The dynamic principle of fantasy is play, a characteristic also of the child, and as such it appears inconsistent with the principle of serious work. But without this playing with fantasy no creative work has ever come to birth. The debt we owe to the play of the imagination is incalculable” [Jung, 1921/1971, p. 63]. (p. 244)

Donaldson (1993) has argued that much of what we consider play in contemporary culture has been “adulterated.” By this pun Donaldson means that play has been corrupted and co-opted into adult ways and ends of competition and consumption, fostering alienation and anesthesia instead of communion and ecstatic experience. Instead of two faces of god encountering each other, as can occur in Donaldson’s “original play,” we are left with a single winner and many losers. Winning is a pyrrhic victory ending in aloneness, isolation, suspicion, and a lack of comradeship, while fierce competition is omnipresent. Although Cousineau (2004b, cassette) notes that this “winning is everything mentality” is changing with the “fair play” movement, where the notion of winning is taken back to its etymological roots of striving and participation is stressed above keeping score; play has been nonetheless poisoned, and is fading fast; no wonder children sit anaesthetized in front of TV sets and videogames becoming mindless and motionless consumers.

Depth psychology teaches us that the repressed returns in shadowy and perverted ways. To see how much we really do value play at one level, one need only look at our fascination with the entertainment industry and professional sports. We cannot get enough of these professional players. Actors and athletes are our most highly paid professionals. Billions of dollars are spent on creating fantasy every year, and we are very very good at it.

Play is central to depth psychology. It is present in some form in most of the major schools of depth psychology. Freudians play with dreams, free association, jokes, and Freudian slips (Freud, 1901/1960, 1905/1963; Bates, 1999). Jung, too, recognized the importance of play during his “Confrontation with the Unconscious.” During the challenging period after Jung broke with Freud, Jung played with stones at the edge of Lake Zurich, just as he had played with stones during his childhood with his “building games.” Jung explained that this was the turning point of his fate. This play led to a stream of fantasies which were the prima materia of his life’s work. Jung used play and art as a way of dialoging with the unconscious, which led to his technique of active imagination. Jung’s work with stone later in his life “proved to be a rite d’entree for the ideas and work that followed hard upon it” (Jung, 1961/1989, p. 175). Dora Kalff (1980), a Jungian, developed sandplay, and Melanie Klein and Anna Freud both used play as a modality of therapy (Millar, 1974), especially in dealing with children. Erik Erikson (1976, 1985) and Donald Winnicott (1999) and were taken with play, too. In Self Relations therapy, a mixture of Ericksonian hypnosis and Object Relations, Gilligan (1997) uses the energies of playfulness, tenderness, and fierceness to help clients access and integrated “neglected selves.”

Much has been written about play, as will be seen in the overview of the literature, but play’s transpersonal nature has not been discussed in a comprehensive manner. Since play is older than humanity, studying play needs to go beyond the personal and into the transpersonal if we are to understand this essential aspect of ourselves. By exploring play’s transpersonal or archetypal aspects as they shine through our own cultural creations, perhaps we can change our course, and our consciousness before it is too late and we experience further irreversible ecological destruction.

Play is an evolutionary necessity in mammals. Brown (1969; 1994; 1995; 1998; 2002, unpublished manuscript, 2003 unpublished chapter) has found that people who are play-deprived are very dangerous; they are more likely to commit murder and other violent crimes. Play is becoming an endangered species, just when we need it most. There is no time for play anymore; we continue to cut play out of our lives and our schools. Ironically, many important discoveries that shaped the modern world did not happen at work, to name a few: Einstein’s discovery of relativity occurred while he was daydreaming about riding a wave of light; Tesla had a vision of an alternating current generator while strolling with a friend; Descartes’s meditations were inspired by visions and nightmares; and Newton was sitting under an apple tree when the idea of gravity struck him (Tarnas, 1995). Our present Cartesian-Newtonian world view has been shaped by play, and Huizinga (1944/1955) argues that culture arises out of play. Yet, the joke seems to be on us. We have really tricked ourselves; to paraphrase Laurel and Hardy, play, it seems, has gotten us into another “fine mess.” But, perhaps play holds a key to our way out of the mess, too. It is my hope that my dissertation will help us believe more deeply in play.


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