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This section was my workspace for philosophy essays between July 2006 and April 2008. I call this "Prehistoric Kilroy" because it gave me practice for more disciplined essays in Kilroy Cafe. Also see my philophical blog and Twitter feed.

Issue #83, 4/24/2007

Play vs. Entertainment

By Glenn Campbell
Family Court Philosopher

[Subject to active editing for the next day or two.]

Play is one of life's greatest joys—and most useful tools. Children do it effortlessly. In an instant, a crate can become a pirate ship, and a cardboard tube becomes a telescope. In the company of peers who agree on the same fantasy, children can sail the seven seas, for the afternoon at least.

Play is a spontaneous symbolic experiment that provides some practice in life without the costs. Play lets a child become a pirate without being hanged for it. He is learning something about life by using his imagination and playing a theatrical role.

Puppies, kittens and baby tigers also play. They will pounce on shadows and attack each other with mock fierceness. The interesting thing is that they know when to stop. They will bite their playmates, but not very hard. Nothing is directly accomplished by this rough-and-tumble activity, yet this sort of practice is essential for the development of their adult social and hunting skills.

Playing pirate or outlaw gives a child a chance to experiment with these roles without actually crossing the line. It is only play, and everyone recognizes it as such, so the player has permission to walk on the wild side for a while. Hopefully, this gives him enough experience with the wild side that he doesn't have to go there in real life.

Adults need to play, too! If they are continuing to develop, then they need to experiment with new roles in ways that do not risk punishment. Sadly, most adults have lost this ability.

Adults may try to play, but for most of them, it is only a ritualized and commercialized imitation of play. Adults try to play by buying things, like a personal watercraft or a dune buggy. Then they spend their weekends going around and around on the same course. This is play only on the first day or two that they do it. After that, it becomes just another dull, repetitive pseudo-entertainment that only kills time and gains them nothing.

The key element of children's play is its spontaneity. You don't need a lot of props to make it work, but the fantasy has to be fresh and alive and relevant to the child's emotional needs at the moment. They can play the same fantasy only a couple of times, and then it loses its novelty and they want to move on.

Adults tend to believe that the fantasy can be nailed down. They see their children playing pirate with a crate for a ship and a cardboard tube for a telescope, and they say, "How sad!" They go out and buy an expensive pirate set for their kids, with a big plastic boat and a real telescope. Like many a Christmas gift, it gets used once and then ignored. At that point, the kids have already mastered the pirate experience and have moved on to other forms of play.

Play cannot be fixed in place, but adults insist on trying. They might go to the mountains or to some exotic island and have genuine fun there, exploring and experimenting in this new environment. Then, if they have the means, they may try to preserve this experience by buying a vacation home there. Thereafter, the place loses its thrill. The vacation home becomes a burden, and all sense of exploration and experimentation quickly evaporates.

Our economy is built largely on these mistakes of perception. Real fun and real joyous play are replaced by commercial products that are supposed to provide them but rarely do. Many an expensive SUV or sports car is sold on the basis of how much fun and inspiration it is going to bring to the owner. Of course, any real joy is gone in fifteen minutes, while the payments continue for years. What you have purchased is a statement to the world that says, "Look how much fun I'm having," when you don't actually feel it inside.

That is the big commercial fraud of our era: People are sold an artificial image rather than a spontaneous and genuinely valuable experience, which in fact can't be sold at all. Genuine play is unique to our current circumstances. It is a non-commercial experience that no one can make any profit from, so it gets little attention from our commercial media.

There aren't many adults who really know how to play. There are few people older than 13 who can get down in the dirt with a kid and build roads for little trucks that are really only blocks of wood. Adults can attempt self-consciously to play like this, but most of them can't get into it. They are too trapped by their own investments to ever really let go.


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“natural living has been stolen from life, we must do something before it disappears totaly” —a child 8/10/07 (rating=4)

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