There’s an etch-a-sketch mounted on the wall of a Columbus coffee shop, with a carefully etched picture of leaves and flowers, and the words “Give Play a Chance.” I took a picture of it and texted it to Jane Gerdsen, Jed Dearing, and Aaron Wright, my co-collaborators in the Play Conference that took place at Saint Stephen’s in mid-April. Jed texted back “we’ve started a movement!” Perhaps we’ve simply managed to align ourselves to a meme, a theme, a societal need that’s being articulated by multiple voices. Our cultural worry right now isn’t, primarily, that we live in a violent world, although we do. It isn’t that there’s growing inequality, although there is. Our main cultural worry is that we have divorced ourselves from the energy, creativity, and community-building nature of play. We worry that our children are only being taught to take tests, that parents are obsessed with safety and won’t let their children walk to friends’ houses anymore, that the decline of our churches and other social institutions can only be stopped by long, dread-filled meetings and careful money management, and that our governmental institutions are full of malevolent schemers who are trying to take away our last vestiges of joyful freedom. We are living with a play deficit, and feeling the consequences.
Play Science is a growing discipline that has Stuart Brown as one of its progenitors. Brown and his colleagues have discovered that play is as essential to human life as good nutrition and sleep habits. They’ve identified several necessary ingredients, or “signatures,” of authentic play. First, play is voluntary. You can’t force it on other people, and you can’t play with any goal in mind beyond playing, which leads to the second signature – play is purposeless. It has shown benefits, but no objectives. Third, it’s not aware of time passing. It flows. Fourth, it’s fun. If you’re not having fun, you’re not playing. And finally, it takes us out of our limited self-consciousness.
This last point can best be emphasized by a number of activities that we did at the Play Conference. On Friday night we held a variety show, and to open it I asked everybody to stand up and start walking around the room. Then I asked them to greet each other as cowboys would. People passed each other, tipping imaginary hats and saying “howdy” in half-embarrassed voices. I switched it and asked them to greet each other as English lords. This was meant to help them overcome their self-consciousness. Once they’d spent a few minutes letting go and allowing themselves to play, we could start the real game. Ana Hernandez, who led the music at the conference, used a similar technique before worship on Friday and in her Saturday workshop. She asked everyone to gather together and hum, choosing a note from a chord that she played for us. Then she asked us to listen to the people near to us and switch to their pitch. We kept switching pitches, moving and adjusting, and really listening to each other. The purpose was to cultivate that listening, but it was also, I think, to help us get past any initial embarrassment and turn aside from those interior voices that tell us that there is a rigid method to singing and that we have to follow it.
Joe Boyd, President of Rebel Pilgrim Creative Agency, told us a story on Friday night about his own conversion from drudgery to a life steeped in play. Joe became a successful evangelical leader at a very young age. His Las Vegas church grew rapidly. But he felt disconnected from joy and from the message that he was preaching, a message that was entirely focused on the afterlife and construed human purpose in terms on not messing up our chance to get into heaven. He grew depressed and started undermining his own church and message. His wife saved him by getting him improv theater classes as a birthday present. It changed is life. Within a few years he was part of a Second City troope and had set aside church work for awhile. As he talked to us, he named improv as his form of play, and emphasized its theological importance. If we think of this life on earth as a kind of labor, as industry towards the eventual goal of getting into heaven, then we more than undervalue it. We become unable to see it as a gift, and are little more than joyless drudges, punching the clock and trying to avoid making any mistakes. We become mired in lives of anxiety and fear. But when we allow ourselves to play, we open ourselves to the world that God has created and become capable of rejoicing.
Our keynote was Ben Norton, a pilgrim priest who’s part of the Church of England’s Fresh Expressions movement. Ben has spent a decade working outside of the parish church structure. He’s organized and worked with men’s groups who meet in bars, small house churches, arts installations, and much more. His first career was as a barber, so when he moved to a new city the first thing he did was approach a local barber shop and ask if he could cut hair there, working for free. He spent a year and a half listening to the people who came in, getting to know the neighborhood and understand the local needs. I love that story, first because it strongly emphasizes the need to listen before we create programs or plan activities. But more than that, I love it because it teaches me that this listening can take a long time, and can seem purposeless. In fact, listening takes on many aspects of play. Real listening isn’t goal orientated – when we really listen to someone, we don’t plot out what we’ll say next or how we’ll guide the conversation. A deep conversation flows and moves and isn’t aware of time. There’s a kind of joy of discovery that takes place. And there’s a setting aside of defensiveness, a willingness to be truly open to the person we’re listening to.
The church is in an anxious moment, when many of our old ways of doing things no longer work as they once did, and many of our old ways of being seem increasingly insupportable. That anxiety makes us want to control our circumstances, either by forcing the changing world to conform to us again, or by creating well-intentioned programs and activities that address the perceived needs of our neighborhoods and communities. Often these activities are poorly attended or don’t generate the types of relationships that we’d like them to. Perhaps we need to surrender our control and suspend our activities, at least for a season. Perhaps we need to spend time listening to each other and the world around us, and moving our internal pitch to match each other’s notes. Perhaps we need to go out into the streets, onto the campuses, into the office parks, voluntarily, purposeless, open to fun and wonder, without worrying about how much time we’re spending, and with our defenses down. Perhaps we need to give play a chance.