Opinion: Is play beyond definition?

Greg Bottrill
Monday, July 19, 2021

There's something that hangs over you, me and childhood that couldn't care less about how we define play, it's that thing called neoliberalism and it creates and shapes our days without us being aware of it most of the time.

Greg Bottrill, author and childhood advocate 

‘To “know” reality you cannot stand outside it and define it; you must enter into it, be it, and feel it.’

Alan Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity.

Have you ever been for a walk in the evening and watched the sun set? Have you marvelled as it transforms the sky into a pink-red-gold dream before your very eyes? Have you then tried to take a photo of that same setting sun to capture the moment only to look at the image and see that it has fallen short of what is actually there? I call this experience ‘life beyond the lens’ – there are moments that lie beyond image or words.

And perhaps the word ‘play’ is exactly the same. Perhaps it too is ‘life beyond the lens’, somehow beyond the words we might want to use to define it. Maybe it's meant to be something more than a term in a dictionary. Rather than being something to be controlled by language, is play more about a feeling, a soul, a way of living? Perhaps we could determine that ‘play’ is anything that we know it is not – the opposite to what is bred by the culture of micro-management, targets, production and efficiency of the adult world. It is as though ‘play’ is our humanity, our essential self, something that can only be known by being lived.

Maybe as an early years sector we need a definition of play? Maybe using the word ‘play’ prevents us from creating a positive narrative to advocate with? It could be argued the world of accountability has had aeons of time to research and understand ‘play’ but has so far seemed unwilling or incapable of embracing it. Arguably we could spend hours seeking to define ‘play’ but this comes to naught if neoliberalism doesn't value what that ‘x’ brings into the world. It's as though neoliberalism is looking in the opposite direction to ‘play’. It can't understand it because it can't measure it, so its gaze looks elsewhere.

The adult world wants curriculum and knowledge, teaching and learning, all seen through the lens of what the adult wants for children rather than what childhood is looking for. And this why I prefer to focus on childhood's way of living rather than pursuing definitions of ‘play’ itself. It's why I choose to explore and focus my energy and soul on ‘the magic of children’ – their creativity, collaboration and curiosity. I believe that children have the capacity to bring the ‘new’ into the world, that their luminosity shows us how to live, and their immersion in the joy of being alive can pull us like a magnet into their way of living with eyes of marvel and wonder. It's why I want to sing a song of childhood that will turn heads and show the world of accountability that there is an alternative story to tell whether it wants a definition of ‘play’ or not. I don't want to wait for the adult world to come to its senses.

I see the magic of children as being beyond ‘what happens in a setting or school’. Instead I see it as part of a way of life itself. It's why I prefer to show children that their choices, their creativity, their questions and their solidarity with one another are valued and embraced. This is what I refer to as ‘soulification’ – this is what I want for children - to see the ‘joy of being you’ (who you are and the life you have), the ‘joy of being me’ (who I am and the life I have) and when together the ‘joy of being us’, our shared experience, our adventure.

This last phrase is particularly important as it is the central concept behind my phrase ‘co-play’ which I prefer to use rather than ‘play’. It enables me to define what I believe is a way of living alongside children, teaching them but also honouring their choices, creativity and collaboration. Co-play involves children and adults respectfully adventuring with one another across each day, showing and teaching skills, exploring and marvelling and creating life within a shared space. Co-play holds the landscape where adventure awaits, that education done with children not to them can be found, and where we can discover the true way to live no matter whether we call what children do with their choices ‘play’ or not.

For me, it's time to tell a new story of childhood where co-play creates childhood based on magic, joy, love and acceptance. Or we can just let childhood evaporate in the story that neoliberalism tells. I know my choice and if mine is the same as yours then I'll see you on the other side.

You might call it ‘play’, you might call it ‘co-play’, you might call it something else but you'll know its magic when your big playfull heart ‘boom boom booms’ in your chest. Because it's then that you and the children will be living a life beyond the lens…

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