In the mixed-media community, you hear rather a lot about play, and if you’re like me, well, maybe you automatically think of glitter and cupcakes and painting with your fingers and writing affirmations on your body and then going outside to dance barefoot while wearing a tutu. Now, I have nothing against glitter: I have a bunch of hand-glittered stars hanging in front of the window in the sewing studio, and I personally own not one but *two* tutus. So don’t call me a hater. But for some of us, that popular notion of creative play sounds less like play and more like forced gaiety.
I’ve been thinking a lot about play, wondering if my own notion of it is just way out of the norm. I was an only child, an introvert, always the new kid because we were Doodle Buggers (my dad was an exploration geophysicist, and we moved all the time). I had an entire world in my head, a world made up from a mishmash of all the books I’d read: gothic horror, mystery, fairy tales, Harriet the Spy. I’d shut myself in my room for whole afternoons, making elaborate villages (things like “village” and “porridge” were big in this made-up world, for some reason) out of blocks and cardboard boxes and cork-lined Coke bottle caps (my mother was a prolific Coke drinker, although I, in a sad example of child abuse, had to drink fruit juice). Never mind that I had a full set of Barbie dolls and all their accessories or a fully-furnished doll house; making huts and cabins with imaginary dirt floors and matchbox beds was infinitely more interesting. While I knew that this was play, it was serious to me: no one else was allowed in my room when the village was set up (and it stayed up for days at a time), and there were rules: only one size of characters played at a time. So if the 1-inch plastic cartoon characters were playing, the Barbie dolls never made an appearance, not even as flesh-eating giants. Characters had to act in ways that were appropriate to their personality: the villain was always the villain, and the detectives were always the good guys. It turns out that what I was doing, sitting in the floor telling made-up stories out loud, was far from a waste of time.
As adults, many of us tend to think of child’s play as free and happy and innocent, and sometimes it is that. But most of the time, play is much more than just toddlers running around in the grass and giggling happily. Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of The National Institute for Play, a non-profit set up to study play in public life, has an excellent TED talk about play. A medical doctor, psychiatrist and clinical researcher, he became fascinated with play and its role in humans when he began studying Charles Whitman, known to a generation as the sniper in the bell tower at the University of Texas in Austin who killed 16 people on campus and wounded 32 others (and had earlier killed both his wife and mother). Governor John Connelly appointed a team to study what was, until the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, the deadliest rampage on a US university campus, and Dr. Brown became fascinated with the impact of childhood play on adult behavior after studying Whitman’s childhood with an abusive, authoritative father. He has gone on to study other violent individuals and has come to believe very strongly that play can act as a deterrent to violence and is vital to human socialization.
Most artists don’t spend much time thinking about violence and deterrence, but almost all of us do spend rather a lot of time musing about creativity: what it is, why it waxes and wanes, why some people seem to have it in abundance and others seem to have been given only the tiniest taste. What’s really interesting to me is how play and creativity influence each other, and, man, do I have a lot of questions. I’m going to be exploring those, not in any scientific way, since I am not a scientist, but by doing some research and asking a lot of nosy questions—because I’m lucky to know lots and lots of creative, thoughtful people.
For fun, meditative play try The Zentangle Untangled Workbook by Kass Hall.
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