How Do You Play?

Clown and audience member interacting

In 1994, at 25 years of age, I penned, produced, and performed my first one-man show, He Can Amuse Himself for Hours. Chicago Reader critic, Justin Hayford, viewed the work as an examination of, “…[T]he impossibility of having a genuine experience.” The show was a collection of personal play memories set against the relief of childhood trauma.  Hayford ended his review saying, “It’s not clear how all of Wilkison’s material fits together, but the sheer audacity of his work makes him a performer well worth watching.” Psychologist Lev Vygotsky, known for his work on psychological development in children wrote, “No one is able to put in precise and exact words why he likes a certain work of art. Words do not express the substantial and important aspects of an emotion, and as already pointed out by Plato, “The poets are the last to become aware of the methods they use for their creativity.” Such is my experience as a writer and actor. And what is the elusive method that poets use for their creativity? It’s play!

Play: The Key to the Human Experience

One of the questions a writer must ask themselves is, who is my audience?  Is it those who believed in the power of play as a creative, developmental, educational, and therapeutic method? Or is it those who did not? Ultimately, I know it was the former audience because, quite frankly, I have a very hard time believing the other exists at all. I tend to side with sociologist Neva Boyd on the subject, “Relatively few adults actually play, but a sort of residue of the joyful play experienced in a person’s childhood and youth remains with them always and flavors life as nothing else does.” I believe most everyone knows that play is the key to the human experience.  So why isn’t play more protected, practiced or even profitable?  The reason may be found in its own characteristics.

In 1938, Johan Huizinga summarized the formal characteristics of play as free activity standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life as being ‘not serious’, absorbing the player intensely and utterly, an activity connected with no material interest. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space and it promotes the formation of social groupings.  These characteristics have become the understood basis of play study by play theorists in modern times, however Huizinga cautions, “When speaking of play as something known to all, and when trying to analyze or define the idea expressed in that word, we must always bear in mind that the idea as we know it is defined and perhaps limited by the word we use for it. Word and idea are not born of scientific or logical thinking but of creative language, which means of innumerable languages.” Huizinga continues, “Nobody will accept that every language in forming its idea of an expression of play, could have hit on the same idea or found a single word for it.”  Yes, all right, but what is play itself?  As a wise witch once spoke, “If you have to ask, you’ll never know. If you know, you need only ask,” (Rowling, The Deathly Hallows). So, I’m glad you asked. 

The Play Concept

When studying play, you begin to see lots of words being added to it to distinguish it from the theoretical to the practical; play properties, play personalities, play types, play behavior, natural play, deep play, true play and the list goes on. Each adding something new but not taking anything away from the larger play sphere. As Huizinga said, “Play is a thing by itself. The Play Concept as such is of higher order than seriousness. For seriousness seeks to exclude play, whereas play can very well include seriousness.” But that still leaves us with understanding what play is, what it can do and how we can summon its power as we did so effortlessly as a child.  

“Perhaps play would be more respected if we called it something like ‘self-motivated practice of life skills,’ but that would remove the lightheartedness from it and thereby reduce its effectiveness. So, we are stuck with the paradox. We must accept play’s triviality in order to realize its profundity,” says Peter Gray, American psychology researcher and scholar.

As an actor I became increasingly dissatisfied with what Augusto Boal referred to as the aristocracy of theatre, “Some persons will go to the stage and only they will be able to act; the rest will remain seated, receptive, passive.” This is when I began work as a historical interpreter at Conner Prairie. The idea of “opening doors” and allowing the guest to “step into the story” was a welcome experience.

One day as I was playing Dr. Campbell, a woman, possibly in her late twenties or early thirties, came into the office at the Campbell House. We chatted about a variety of topics and remedies, how some worked well and others did not work as well as I would have liked. From the window of the office, one can see the Prairietown Cemetery. To this day, even when I am not in character, guests inquire if it is a real cemetery. It is a remarkable interpretive tool and wonderful moments of conversation are had as guests maneuver around the subject, often with humor.  Such was the case with the guest I was speaking with, noticing the cemetery outside of the doctor’s window, she asked with a playful laugh if that was where people went when my remedies didn’t work as well as I liked. I took a moment, remembering the details of the Campbell biography that included a son that we had lost and responded, “Actually, my son is buried in that grave on the corner.” The guest’s eyes opened wide, she turned a bit pale, backed out of the room and left quickly.  Later on in the day, she returned, I immediately offered apologies if I had made her uncomfortable by my earlier comment. She said that she had also lost a child and that she knew how sad that must have been. It was at that moment that a guest and myself shared a genuine experience of grief. So, maybe the question is not about understanding what play is or is not, but examining what is at stake if we don’t understand play. 

In 1958, Roger Caillois wrote, “In strongly opposing the world of play to that of reality, and in stressing that play is essentially a side activity, the inference is drawn that any contamination by ordinary life runs the risk of corrupting and destroying its very nature.” In my experience, play and reality cannot exist without each other. While I play a character the reality of my experience informs every aspect of how I play. My reality could no more interfere with my play than my play could have interfered with my guests’ reality. The key component to all of this was a mutual inclusiveness, openness and willingness to play.

How Do We Experience Play?

One reaches a point in trying to understand play that you realize you haven’t allowed yourself to experience play. So how do we experience play? The answer is not in the studies or the theories. It is contained within the act of play and the work of those I refer to as “play practitioners.” Clowning is an ancient art form that involves an understanding of play and a willingness to participate on many levels. John Towsen writes of the stage clown, “Often he will step out of the play and comment upon it, appearing to be as much a part of the audience as of the drama.” Becoming a clown was my first introduction to play as a field of study. It went beyond mere performance and introduced me to a way of achieving a “genuine experience” both as a player and as an observer. Since I was 8 years old I wanted to run away and join the circus to be a clown. 40 years later, I began my training as a clown. This included education in the scientific, theoretical and practical uses of play for “children of all ages.” One of my greatest thrills as a clown is when adults join in and play. Often when I am clowning, I carry with me red foam clown noses. For me they are a symbol of play. When I am asked by adults if the clown noses are only for the children, my response is always the same, “Play is for everyone.”

“We learn through experience and experiencing, and no one teaches anyone anything. This is as true for the infant moving from kicking and crawling to walking as it is for the scientist with his equations,” Viola Spolin, American theatre academic, educator and acting coach. 

The Impact of Play on Development and Learning

In 1963, Viola Spolin published Improvisation for the Theatre, a collection of games and exercises. In the publication she writes, “Experiencing is penetration into the environment, total organic involvement with it. This means on all levels: intellectual, physical and intuitive. Of the three, the intuitive, most vital to the learning situation, is neglected.” Spolin saw that her proposed games delivered a direct experience. My job as Education Program Developer at Conner Prairie forced me to take a closer look at how play impacts development and learning. This involved a great deal of catch up but even a greater amount of practicum. While I have studied improvisation in the past, I got the feeling as an educator that something was missing in my experience. I decided to go to the source and began studying with Aretha Sills, teacher of improvisational theater and granddaughter of Viola Spolin. Until then I had never truly been given permission to play. When it bogs down, play a game. I saw improvisation as a performance tool. The games help me change the way I play. Change is not enough. This body of work asks more: transformation.

So, to experience play, one must simply play. Yet, it is most difficult. “Very few of us are able to make direct contact with ourselves. Our simplest move out into the environment is interrupted by our need for favorable comment or interpretation by established authority. We either fear that we will not get approval, or we accept outside comment and interpretation unquestionably. In a culture where approval/disapproval has become the predominant regulator of effort and position, and often the substitute for love, our personal freedoms are dissipated,” Viola Spolin. Play cannot be manufactured. Like energy, it cannot be created or destroyed. Maybe the greatest contribution we can make is to ensure play has what it so desperately needs, time and space.

In 1996, China’s Ministry of Education released its Standards for Kindergarten Education. The standards state that education should treat play as a, “Foundational activity to be included in every type of activity.” Even with the inclusion of play early on, Ms. Cheng Xueqin observed joy being “ruthlessly stripped” from children in the service of adult ideas about how play should be directed to serve specific educational and developmental goals. This led Ms. Cheng to  develop Anji Play- a specific philosophy and comprehensive approach to early education in Anji County, China. Anji Play is based on five core principles; love, risk, joy, engagement and reflection. In Anji Play these principles are not limited to the child, but include the adult and the community. I was honored to be invited by the True Play Community to take part in a Reflective Practice pilot program. Deep observation is a key component of Anji Play and the time to reflect on the experience is valued for both the child and adult. Children do this by creating play stories of their experience while adults take on the task of reflection. However, key components developed in the practice of Anji Play can be utilized to great effect in a wide variety of applications. At our Preschool on the Prairie, I have observed play like never before. I am often invited into the childrens’ play but more often, I am standing back and observing closely.

The Promise of Play

The promise of play is that it is accessible; you need only play. Play is perhaps the only thing that delivers such an outcome. We have to ensure play is accessible for everyone all the time.  When play feels welcome, it leads to a sense of belonging. So, while my early work may have been an examination of “the impossibility of having a genuine experience,” my experience has been genuinely made possible through play. 

Play is enough.

Bill Wilkison is the Education Program Developer

About the Author

Bill Wilkison has studied with a variety of artists from Academy Award Winner Alan Arkin to Tony Award Recipient Mary Zimmerman. As the Education Program Developer at Conner Prairie, Bill is constantly challenging the conventional restraints of time and space creating an environment where delight and magic can blossom and the unknown can become known. Play is a predominant part of his past, present, and future that he shares with guests through Conner Prairie’s Explore the Arts series.