Opinion: Play has serious value for kids, and adults too

(Annaliese Nurnberg/Missourian via AP)

(Annaliese Nurnberg/Missourian via AP)

My favorite game as a kid was hide-and-seek. We set the simple rules ahead of time — an agreed-upon home base, boundaries, how to decide who was “it”— but we also constantly adapted the rules as others joined, or parents shooed us off to another place. Childhood play taught us how to be fair, how to cooperate, and how to work together towards the common goal: playing as long as possible.

There is nothing frivolous about play. In childhood games like hide-and-seek we train to navigate a chaotic and uncertain adult world. Play is a complex tool for development and self-preservation that we rely on as we continue to grow; it’s essential for nurturing the skills and resilience we need to complete our inner lives, and to engage fully in our public lives.

I’ve been thinking about the rich foundation that childhood play gives us as I’ve watched how people live through this disorienting period of stress, and distress. COVID-19 has isolated us from each other — and separates us still. Yet it has, remarkably, shown how constraints — time, place, money — have led to brilliant and playful creativity. Our lives have been brightened with shared memes, songs, and conversations with long-lost friends. Even in extreme crisis, in fact especially in crisis, what we learned on the playground offers us tools for adaptation and survival. Play helps us maintain equilibrium.

Play is also a muscle of strength as we struggle to evolve our democracy with fervent protests and political disruption. Economist Steven Horowitz suggests that more than two centuries ago, America’s new concept of democracy was a radical rethinking of how we live together in our public lives. The founding fathers — and mothers — insisted that we could come together to set our own rules and solve our own problems, as opposed to turning to a higher authority — in their case, the crown — to tell us what to do. American children are nurtured in this idea of engagement and responsibility to the needs of a dynamic public life. Democracy has never involved sitting on the sidelines; you have to be willing to get in the game.

If democracy-making skills were being practiced in my childhood game, they are also being exercised right now on our streets by Americans, old and young. The seriousness of the current protests makes it hard to see them as play, but citizens are asking for new rules that make it possible that everyone who can play can also win.

Healthy play involves rules and order, collaboratively established, and flexible enough to evolve as the parameters change: new players come into the mix; boundaries adjust; “winning” gets redefined. The recent protest movement is showing us that the rules we as a society have been abiding by are not fairly applied; the agreements are not coordinated with all the players, and the playing field is not only uneven, it’s actually not safe for all of us. Comedian Trevor Noah called out this dissonance: “Society is a contract between a group of us who agree to common rules, common ideals and common practices that are going to define us as a society. The contract is only as strong as the people who are abiding by it.”

Similarly, the “game” of American democracy requires that we abide by common rules, ideals, and practices fairly applied.

Play is multifaceted. In our public lives, the arts allow us to channel our playful impulses and also remind us of our highest ideals. In times of difficulty, such creativity can keep our souls from being crushed.

This last 4th of July was like no other in my lifetime. Children will continue to play games, artists will continue to inspire, and the rest of us will make signs, and have our voices heard. I hope we also find space to bring play back into our lives, because we need to reimagine our world.

Nancy Richards Farese, from Carrollton, is a photographer, writer, and founder of the visual storytelling nonprofit, CatchLight.io. She is the author of the upcoming book “Potential Space: A Serious Look at Child’s Play,” and was recently a fellow at The Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.