The Power of Play and the Need for Playing

Play creates happy emotional condition of the organism-as-a-whole. Play involves social values, as does no other behavior. The spirit of play develops social adaptability, ethics, mental and emotional control, and imagination. These are the more complex adjustments a child learns through play. In play, there are adjustments to new situations constantly. Play experience can prepare the person for purposefulness in non-play activities, for true play creates the incentive to use one’s best ability. Through play a person can develop a pattern of self-reliance and self-confidence. –Neva L. Boyd, from the essay, A Theory of Play.  Acting requires presence. Playing produces this state. – Viola Spolin.
Viola Spolin could have said living fully and joyously requires presence – and playing produces this state. When we are at play our physical and mental state merge into a unified whole, devoted only to the problem at hand – the playing of the game. After all, a game is just a problem (or set of problems) that need solving. When we truly play, our intuitive ability engages and our minds become fully focused on the problem that the game asks us to solve. Action and thought merge into an integrated consciousness to attend solely to the play activity. Play releases us from the past and our ghostly voices 
[1]and brings our attention into the present. Fear and memories of past failures or hurts vanish because there is simply no room for them to exist in the present. We are released from the bondage of our past wounds and cannot anticipate a negative future. There simply is no time for past or future in the Now. We call this experience fun – a peak experience. Fun is the antidote to the ills of our time. Fun produces a unification of mind and body and creates full involvement[2]. Fun is not trivial, it is essential. Contrary to the Puritan concept that life is suffering and acceptance of suffering is the goal, the purpose of life is the cultivation of happiness. Life should be fun.

What’s so fun about fun?

Fun is not an escape from reality. It is a doorway into reality. Fun is a psychological state where attitude and judgment are suspended and the mind and body act in harmony to accomplish a goal. Physiologically, when we have fun our pulse races a bit, our awareness expands and our senses are sharp. We rise to meet the challenge and accept the unknown outcome of playing a game with positive expectancy. We experience any activity as fun as long as we fully give ourselves over to it without judgment. Something viewed as fun instead of a chore erases any expectation of judgment or the approval or disapproval of others. We play the game for ourselves – for the sake of playing.

What spoils fun?

Judgment and opinion block flow and stop the fun. In fact, any activity that takes our attention away from full involvement with the self-chosen task at hand spoils the fun. Viola Spolin, in her book Improvisation for the Theaterdefines judging as; Playing safe before you can act; no choice made to act spontaneously: Subjective placement of good/bad, right/wrong based on old frames of reference, cultural or family patterns (personal) rather than a fresh response to a moment of experiencing; imposition. Judgment while playing causes a schism of self and the mind/body unity dissolves into fragments of critical thought, “Well that was good.” Or, “I could have done that a bit better” or “I can’t do this.” Any type of self-consciousness within the activity of play reduces one’s full attention to the problem at hand. The self is divided into various selves. An internal dialogue begins, either consciously or unconsciously. The new problem becomes worrying about your ability to perform or thinking critically (intellectualizing) while playing. The problem of the game becomes secondary and the primary focus now is on the self (subjective) instead of the task (objective). In extreme cases, disorders develop from overly judging one’s self and obscure true self awareness and objectivity. Unfortunately, we grow up in a culture that promotes self-consciousness. “Think before you speak”, “Know where you’re going”, “Have a plan”, “Here’s how you should to do it.” Schools teach more by rote and less by experience. They teach us what to think, not how to think. They focus on amassing intellectual information and testing retention. We learn less from actual doing (trail and error) and rely on others who have already judged what lessons we should learn from an appointed task (parents, teachers and bosses). We work to please them as authorities rather than to please ourselves.  This pattern of working to please others creates the seeds of co-dependency. Spolin called this disease of our modern times the Approval/Disapproval syndrome. Approval/Disapproval syndrome not only distorts fun, but creates a poor motive for living. Approval/Disapproval reactions come several forms.
  1. Conformity (passivity, apathy, dependency, loss of creativity)
  2. Rebellion (anger, negativity, bullying, manipulation)
  3. Withdrawal or Escape (addiction, depression, fearfulness)
If we play for the sake of gaining someone’s approval or avoiding someone’s disapproval, the satisfaction of playing for its own sake vanishes, replaced by the satisfaction of being valued by someone outside you. You look to others to validate your effort. This is a loss of personal freedom. Play the game for its own sake and you stand a better chance of being free. True play creates vitality, happiness and fulfillment.

The healing power of play for its own sake; Two cases of present time play alleviating pain of traumatic backgrounds.

Children of the Night workshop:

In 1989, I ran a workshop at Children of the Night Shelter, a most remarkable program inLos Angeles, dedicated to taking in child prostitutes, ages 11-17, and helping them remain off the streets and aiding in finding a better situation. Most of the children victimized by prostitution were first victimized by a parent or early caregiver. Most have been tortured by treacherous pimps, and many testify in lengthy court proceedings against the pimps who have forced them to work as prostitutes. In most cases these children do not have appropriate homes to return to, and the only relative who is a suitable guardian may live far away from the child‘s hometown. The workshop of games was predominantly not oriented towards theater, but more recreational in nature, yet an atmosphere of non-judgment was critical in my presentation. The structure of the classroom was strict; necessary for kids with no boundaries, and there was a feeling of tension in the room similar to prisons and rehab centers where boundary issues are often violated. We began by playing a game called When I Go to California. It is a game of memory where each person in the circle says “When I go to California, I’m going to take a trunk (or any other needed object)”. The second says “When I go to California I’m going to take a trunk and a hat. The third takes the trunk, the hat and something new.  Each player takes, in exact order, all that has been mentioned and adds another. The game continues until it becomes difficult to keep track. Each player assigned a letter to spell GHOST for each memory lapse until there are only a few players left. It was essential that I, as the coach, also played. The game is one of memory and professional acting skill is not an issue in this game. As the game began, some of the children, suspicious of me as an adult and potential threat, tested to see my reaction to their situation selected so-called shocking things to “take to California”. “When I go to California, I’m going to take my smelly hoochie, my set of works, a pack of condoms, my dildo etc. As my turn came, I repeated the litany of their ‘tools of the trade’ and added a pair of sunglasses. I made no distinction or value on the objects as long as I was playing. The smirks and snickering vanished after one round. The next round became objects of real need, money, a car, my teddy bear, favorite pajamas, little brothers, etc. I became a fellow player without judgment and the playing became spirited and fun. I made no comment after the game, but went on to another one. It did not get turned into a “lesson” which would have kept the children on their guard. The rest of the workshop progressed like any other with laughter and great fun and the children had a chance to play and enjoy themselves without the burden of scolding or even solicitous, well meaning adults (hidden condescension). The games were played over and over during the rest of the month, providing both kids and supervisors with a break from the “rehabilitation’ model that colored many of the other activities. Judgment turns fun into a “lesson”.

Out of Darkness Gallery workshop:

In Torrance California, the Out of Darkness art gallery was created to help survivors of sexual child abuse heal through art therapy. I led an interactive games workshop of adult artists who have survived sexual child abuse and were using art therapy setting to help them work through issues of pain, betrayal and horror. The artworks were indeed powerful and often disturbing. This atmosphere of ‘working’ to heal the past made it feel like I was working in a victims ward. There was great fear and timidity in many of the artists.Victimization became an identity. We began by playing 3 Changes, a game of observation. Two players look at one another, then turn around, make three changes in their appearance and then turn back and identify each change on their partner. This led to mirror games and then to more and more challenging, but fun games, with no mention of what each game was intended to produce in the players. The workshop produced great laughter and energy. I got a letter from one participant that said the workshop was like ‘taking a vacation from myself’ and she very much appreciated the time away from her past.

The Paradigm shift for a happier life: It’s not weather you win or lose — It’s HOW you play the game

As trite as this phrase has become, it is true wisdom. View the problem as a game; solve the problem as in a game. A game changes what you “should” into what you “want to do.” Every problem can be housed in a game and resistance to the playing can be solved by a simpler game. Playing produces autonomous action. Resistance (self-consciousness) to working on a problem dissolves when approaching the problem as play. Play produces presence. Presence is all there is: Right Now! Being in the now prompts right action and creates a joyous life. Play is our birthright and we should cherish the ability to play always. The good news is that this experience is always at hand in the thousands of games available.  

GarySchwartz, 2003  North Bend,WA


[1] GHOSTLY VOICES: The past; emotional dependency on rules of behavior subtly woven into our own voices, psyche, and gestures by parents, teachers, spouses, institutions, employers, dictators, and culture.   Viola Spolin, “Improvisation for the Theater” Northwestern University Press.  
[2] INVOLVEMENT: Earnestly entering into the game or exercise; playing: discipline is involvement; involvement with object creates release and freedom to relate. “Improvisation for the Theater, 3rd Edition” Viola Spolin, Northwestern University Press.
By | 2017-08-13T21:37:55+00:00 November 21st, 2014|Categories: Creativity, games, Improvisation for the Theater, Spontaneity, Theory|Tags: , , , , , , |Comments Off on The Power of Play and the Need for Playing

About the Author:

Gary’s 18-year association with world-renowned theater educator and author, Viola Spolin provides the foundation for his work today.
He is the only master teacher to have ever earned an endorsement from both Viola Spolin and her son, the legendary original director of Second City, Paul Sills.
Gary resides in North Bend WA. He is founder of The Valley Center Stage, North Bend’s Community Theater and teaches theater games locally and around the world.

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