Reconsidering recapitulative play

The most frequently read page on this site is Bob Hughes’ Play Types, which is as it should be.  He provided us with an incredibly useful taxonomy.  We include it right at the beginning of our online course in playwork, and every so often one of those students asks “what do you mean, when you say it’s controversial?”  What to say, when that ‘controversy’ has mostly taken the form of post-conference conversations, and talks over tea?

The truth is, I have no issue with recapitulative play itself – I love it!  I’ve been privileged to experience some extraordinary moments while playworking,  when a strange tingle of something ancient and magical rose up around us.

Once, we brought lengths of fabric and paper masks to a play ranging setting.  On a cold dry day, everyone dressed themselves up and ran around the square to keep warm.  One boy had been a ‘bear’ on and off for weeks, and now the other playworker pulled a cloth across his shoulders and flapped his wings as a raven.  They circled each other slowly, then slower still, and a girl on the sidelines began a slow drum beat on an upturned bucket.  The air…  shifted.  That solitary rhythm matched the pump of our blood and the air throbbed.  I cannot explain what we called up or why it slowly drifted away, but can agree that it felt old, and it felt deep.

I love that we, as a profession, value aspects and expressions of play that others rarely talk about.  So what’s the issue?

Sigh.  It’s the name.  I love the play, and hate the term he provided.  Partly, it’s the emphasis on evolutionary psychology, which isn’t my background or bag.  Even within evolutionary biology, recapitulation theory is, to say the absolute least, contested.

From my perspective, the drive for play is something that all humans (and other animals too) share, but the ways in which we play are inextricably cultural.  That doesn’t deny the way that some play has of opening a depth of meaning through our lives and histories, personal and shared.  We may sit around a bonfire, watching sparks fly into the air.  We may build shelters and whisper stories of mothers and monsters and how we all came to be, as the dark falls around us and the rain falls on a homemade roof.  We may gather food from the hedgerow and return with it, cupped damply in our palms, to share with friends.  The play may feel deep, and rich and different – but to say it has anything to do with earlier evolutionary stages seems like a leap, dragging unnecessary baggage into a list of otherwise neutral terms.

I want us to find a new word, or at least discuss the need for one, for several reasons.  The most important is that sitting around a fire at night, or elaborate rituals of dance and story-telling, do not belong to ‘earlier evolutionary stages’.  They are part of contemporary life for the majority of people living on this planet, people who are precisely as ‘evolved’ as everyone else.

The idea that an interest in “ancestry, history, rituals, stories, rhymes, fire and darkness” is tied with earlier stages of evolution is a dangerous one – moving us from ‘primal’ (which means foundational, at the root) to ‘primitive’ (which has been used to dehumanize and to justify genocide).  It tells stories about a past that probably never was, distinguishing it from a modernity that does not exist.  Bruno Latour argued that “we have never been modern“, and that it’s time we move beyond convenient nature/culture distinctions and examine complex lived phenomena, together.  Of the examples Hughes provides of recapitulative play, “ancestry, history, rituals, stories, rhymes, fire and darkness” all remain deeply part of our lives in the West.  Building a family tree online or streaming a fireplace on Netflix come from that same human need – though they may leave us less satisfied.

I’m aware that this might spark some controversy of its own, and want to be clear that my discomfort with this specific term does not in any way diminish the enormous respect I have for Bob Hughes’s work, or that of other colleagues who come from a more evolutionary angle.  However, I hope that we can discuss the possibility of other perspectives, other frameworks for reaching a shared understanding of these experiences that lie at the bedrock of our shared humanity.  When considering terms, I would like to humbly submit ‘archetypal’ into the mix.   This word has been employed by multiple disciplines in flexible ways, including literary criticism and Jungian psychology to provide a means of examining that which occurs repeatedly across cultures and individuals, and seems flexible enough that we could construct our own version of the concept.

What about you?  What have you seen, and what words have helped you to discuss it?

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