Recently I was part of a long email chain with Eddie Nuttall, Penny Wilson and Kelda Lyons. We had been talking collectively about how one works with adults who are anti-play – or who claim to be advocates of play but carry so much fear and suspicion that their conception of play is in itself oppressive to children. We were reminding one another to view these adults with the same sympathy that we would if they were still children chronologically – to understand their position as one of play deprivation, even if they are busy passing this deprivation along to another generation.
Something in this has been niggling away in the back of my mind ever since. Finally occurred to me that nearly everything we’d been saying about play – about the human need for it, its inevitable bubbling up in people as a life force, our need to perceive those needs and live within them – could just as easily have been said about love. Much of it already has.
If we consider love to be verb (following on from bell hooks) then it becomes also an expansion of possibilities, a celebratory connection with people and the world. Love offers us a transformative potential, if we can accept it, and shows us our best selves, our most sympathetic and receptive selves. Love is where we practice true responsibility, and when we are living in love we might experience it as a calm alertness to chances for joy. Love is respectful and intuitive and brave, seeking connection while celebrating difference. It feels like a blooming of the self in response to sunlight.
We might experience fear as its physical opposite, as a contracting sensation in the chest or stomach, a cooling of the limbs. We might associate it with controlling behavior, a preference for standardization and predictability, a suspicion of novelty or change. We might say how fear places limits upon your relationships and exploration of the world and shrinks those boundaries in all the time. We might characterize people who live in fear as doom-seers and doom-sayers, suffering through their own closed response circuit in which everything is experienced as difficult, disheartening, a cause for further concern. We might say that fear breeds fear, that we get good at the things we practice and when it comes to fear that is a damned shame.
It seems to me that fear and love can be seen as existing along a line together. They are absolutely linked – because we fear losing what we love, and in some twisted way we love our terrors so dearly that we refuse to let them go. In any relationship (including playwork), we are always trying to balance our good intuition and our learned anxieties to find our best judgement. We know that moving from love feels like a response, while moving from fear feels like a reaction. In between those two points are the acts of ordinary confusion, the intertwined impulses that lead to (among other things) our modern paranoid overprotection of children.
Love and play are different – but they are on the same side opposing fear, offering ways to experience, accept and transform the world as empowered individuals. Both seem to me our inborn mechanisms for finding beautiful truths. When we live in love or play, we are our richest selves, our truest freest bravest selves. When we love and when we play, we are most alive.
I believe that love and play overlap – and that this overlap might be called Playwork. As bell hooks says, “love is an action” – and I think that one way of understanding playwork is as a loving act in support of play. When we do playwork we are helping someone else in their processes of being and becoming, their creation or incorporation of new or deep or experimental selves that are all part of the same human soul.
And when we do it right, when we do it wholeheartedly and reflectively and with attentive joy – then we birth a similar process in ourselves.
Below is a poem created by Eddie, restructuring words of mine from that email thread in a new and beautiful formation:I think The fear people feel is massive I think Fear opposes play Is the opposite of love; It is a shrinking emotion. We know better Play can expand the world. But the instinct is twisted inside for many Spilling out of control as fear. They have turned towards a darker place Where suspicion reigns in a collective amnesia Whispering of all that has slipped away. I want to shout But that won’t work at all. We need to make something beautiful possible For adults also To support them through this process As they wake and creak to unfamiliar sensations – As they start to play.