When kids first start to play, say around one to two years old, if they are playing “with” another child they are really not playing together so much as playing next to each other. They may watch what each other does, and they may imitate, but they don’t mingle their play. Psychologists call this “parallel play.”
When kids get a little older, provided they are secure and wired up for it, they start to play with each other. Your kid’s doll or truck starts to interact with the other kid’s toy. Voila: the birth of cooperative play.
In this three to five time of life, kids start to build cooperative play in their imaginations. The toys may be props, but the play’s the thing. Group play emerges. Kids playing house, or dinosaurs, or doctor are creating a fragile world that hovers between them—just like grown-ups on a stage or doing improvisational comedy: it is a world of “yes and.”
The house of play is built by a child adding an idea to a pretend situation (i.e. “we have to operate”), and then another child accepting that idea and continuing to build upon what they have constructed together (“I’ll get the saw.”). If you stop and think about it, a game of make-believe between children is quite amazing—a leap of imagination, imagery and language (a bit like that primitive bone spinning up into the air to transform into a space station in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey).
Thus in parenting, we must equip our children to be able to walk into a sandbox and be ready to listen to what the other children are saying, to watch what they are doing, to apprehend the game which is afoot, and to then indicate that they are in on it by saying and/or doing something appropriate to the pretend situation.
Confronted with an ongoing game of doctor, the child who sees that one kid is pretending to be injured and then says, “I have extra bandages,” will be accepted into the group and woven into the play. Conversely, the insecure child who, disturbed by the pretend injury (or failing to read the game at all), then shouts out: “I’m Darth Vader,” will be rejected from this group—not because they don’t “like” this child, but because the newcomer’s mis-attunement with the play the others have constructed threatens to tear it all down.
Play is a big part of how we learn to socially construct “reality.” It relates to how grown-ups collaboratively build culture. And the stakes go way up. Consider what’s happening in Egypt, Libya and neighboring countries lately: the masses no longer agree on the previous social order, and the would-be leader shouts things like “they’ve put drugs in the young people’s coffee,” but this is met with the counter-message that a new game is now being played. And when bullets fail to make people play your game, you know you have lost your grip on the world’s playground.
And so we can see how fear and play relate to each other. We fear being left out of the group, and so we “play” along, sometimes with really stupid games; and yet we also yearn to be authentic, loving, free and self-expressed—and from there we may find the courage to stand up for what we see to be our own real potential situation, at least if we dare to be our best Selves (i.e. equality, fairness, justice, compassion). And when we are true to what we believe, AND we find solidarity with others, a new game spontaneously arises.
Consider how this might relate to moral development (i.e. greed vs. cooperative well-being) and to the personal choices we make (i.e. peer pressure toward drugs, meaningless sex, materialism vs. cooperative building of trust, fun, authenticity and caring for each other).
Americans may have invented the “social network” (although it seems that we really just took cooperative play to the next technological level), but it turns out to be people living under the yoke of oppression who took that wheel we created and realized that it wasn’t just a Lazy Susan, good for monetizing the super-sizing of our own faltering social game (“I had sushi.” “Like!”), but that it is also a tool for liberation.
As parents, we want to attune with our children from the very beginning (although it’s never too late to repair, so long as we learn to truly listen—to enter into the worldview and feelings of our children so that they, in turn, enter a space of shared trust with us, which results, over time, in security and the ability to engage with the wider world).
As parents we are also well-served to take another look at our own “control issues,” as perhaps those are the places where our lingering hurts, insecurities and mistrust trigger us to try and get everyone on our page—to play our game by our rules. Ours is a country where “our way” is the highway (a nation alone in its car)—nowhere more so than in LA.
Could this control zone, this “we’re playing my game by my rules,” inadvertently be the very place where our children (not to mention colleagues, friends and lovers) feel that they have little choice but to shut us out or else risk seeing their own values, beliefs and fragile sense of self come crashing down?
Perhaps it’s better to build with blocks together, than to build another unneeded Trump Tower all my our lonely selves; maybe we all need a little more play-time, which turns out to be far less frivolous than we might have imagined. Too much nose to the grindstone and soon nobody knows anything.
So, here’s to play—from our blogging to our parenting to our loving and our creating.