Updated: Sep 18, 2021
The signs they are a-changin’
I hate NO BALL GAMES signs. They’re a symptom of a rules-based approach to life that saps its joy. They make children’s lives smaller and often in places where they have little enough space. I want a world where kids are encouraged to play everywhere and with every thing around them. It’s how they learn, express themselves and enjoy life, and it should be encouraged. I know how this sounds. Utopian. Blind to realities. But our reality is founded on very dodgy principles, one being the primacy of cars. What gives me hope is that we can choose to go a different way. The system will change when enough of us choose not to accept it.
How will that happen? I think it already is. Many people are showing the way ahead; Tim Gill advocating for child-centred urban planning; A Playfull City designing spaces that build play and movement and joy into cities; Emma Bearman and her wonderful Playbox interventions; all the playworkers and play advocates enriching the lives of kids all over the country.
Why is play so important?
I believe life is better when we live it more playfully. It’s how we learn best, it’s how we become more resilient, it’s a way to access flow states, it helps us connect better to others and perhaps to ourselves too. I think it’s something that is existentially important to us as a species, but its importance is not appreciated widely enough. The benefits are qualitative — it sparks imagination, wit, tolerance and empathy, mastery, agility, independence and poise–stuff that’s hard to measure. The things society currently encourages us to value are easily measured.
The case we have to make is a qualitative not a quantitative one.
How to play more?
It can help by framing play as a skill, it’s something that everyone can access and get better at. Like mindfulness, the benefits come through developing it as a practice. That’s how I talk about the Playfulness Packs I make. Each contains six or seven open-ended activities that invite exploration. They don’t require expensive materials, technology or training — it’s all about being as accessible as possible. If you can give people a taste for play, they’ll embrace it and seek out more of it for themselves. It’s about making play irresistible.
This is something I aim to do in my own artwork too. To use materials and techniques that are very simple and repeatable. I want people to think “I could have done that” but I really want to give permission to actually go and do that. Actions beat intentions.
Perhaps that’s the key. I can talk about the value of play all day long but the real understanding comes in actually playing. That’s when you see people sparking and seeing possibilities.
In terms of developing a practice of playfulness, action is critical but so is consistency. Find things that work with the grain of your day, not against it. Find a time in the day you can have for yourself, it might only be ten minutes to start with and use it for play. Here are some suggestions for what you might do:
● Daydream — use that time to stop and see where your ideas go. It’s rare they don’t lead to something unexpected and interesting.
● Notebook time—write or doodle, set yourself a quantity you must complete in the time, say three pages. This kind of activity gets you in the habit of downloading your mind. Again, it leads to surprises and ideas you can develop further.
● Talk to people—seek out people who spark you and your interests. Perhaps you’ll discover like I did, that all your best ideas come through conversation. There’s so much play to be had in how we talk to each other.
● Walk—walking helps me think, it defrags my hard drive. Try leaving your phone and take a notebook instead. Shift the dynamic from being a passive consumer to an active creator. This notebook was made for that.
● Take chalk—the world is your playground. Nothing is fixed. Everything can be changed. The culture tells you this isn’t possible, but carrying and using chalk proves this to be a lie. It’s the easiest way to comment on, modify and question things in the world, and by doing so it invites others to do the same. Here is one example, and here’s another.
● Play with your kids—this, like all play, is worth doing for its own sake. But it’s also worth keeping half an eye on what’s happening. See the freedom they have in drawing and inventing worlds on the fly. It’s incredibly inspiring and liberating. In my work, I’m looking to share the essence of what kids do completely naturally.
● Look and listen—much of what makes play work in a group context is the attention that each person gives to the others. It’s that listening that stops you worrying about what to say, you just respond. This is the heart of improvisation too. We can take that and consciously make it part of our every day. Look for opportunities to listen. The Art of Noticing is a great book full of brilliant prompts and activities that build these observational muscles. It makes it clear that you can listen to people, but also to everything else in your environment.
● Slow down—many of these activities are about stepping out of the stream of your life. It’s from there you can look at things with a keener eye. It’s when you can see the opportunities for play. It’s so much harder to do while everything is in flux around you. That’s how people end up losing time, they never had chance to give themselves pause.
The suggestions above are just that, they’re a menu to choose from and none of them are required. See what appeals and feel free to adopt and adapt.
Let’s play – and make a richer, fairer, more beautiful world.
PS – I’ve just written a manifesto about using design to help make positive change happen. I’d love your thoughts. And if you think we’re on the right lines, become a signatory.