Here's the text of my speech at the TEDxOrenda at Olympia, London, 13th January 2010. As ever, keen for any responses from those who've heard it (and those who haven't). I'll stud the text with links over the next few days (and post video when it appears
Pat Kane at TEDxOrenda
Is there much I can tell a hall full of teachers and technologists about the power and potential of play? Maybe not. The best I can do in my twenty minutes is to dip briefly into my own musings and researches into this perpetually startling, continually inspiring dimension of human behaviour and culture. And hope that it brightens your perception of your own practice and vocation.
I tend to go deep and high with play. Deep into biology, evolution and neuroscience. And high into the broader social, political and global significance of play, as it moves to the centre of our collective agendas.
To the depths first. Anyone who thinks about play always struggles to find a definition of it. Indeed, the literary theorists I used to consume in the 80's as a student would tell you that play, as difference, is itself the very evasion of definition. (Remember that one, post-modernist pop-pickers?)
But here's my definition, pushed up against a wall and with Ken Dodd's tickling stick at my armpit: Play means to take reality lightly. Why do we need to take reality lightly? Because play is a necessary and vital principle of possiblity in the human condition. A solid body of evolutionary research has told us for at least half a century now that we need to play to develop properly, as complex mammalian organisms. (I'm sure any early years teacher in the room will know this to be true). And here's where the taking reality lightly bit comes in: play – and that's all forms of play, not just rule-bound games – helps us to rehearse the business of living with other subtle, semiotic, richly emotional and social creatures. In a way, play is virtual reality.
The great educational psychologist Brian Sutton-Smith sums this up by calling play 'adaptive potentiation'. We try out techniques, strategies, scenarios, personas, in delimited zones, where the usual urgent determinations of life don't automatically apply. This is where we see the similarity between cubs at play and children at play: both of them rough-and-tumbling through their environments, exuberant animals testing their capacities. Thinking about these spaces – the schoolyard and the savannah – also helps us to think about those how arts and sports are an extension of the play moment. In the arts we suspend our disbelief in movie halls, gigs or theatres; in sports we willingly subject ourselves to arbitrary rules, on specific fields and grids, for the thrill of contest.
This developmental view is bolstered by a growing body of psychology and neuroscience – which shows how much our cognitive and emotional development in early years is helped by periods of sustained, rich, directed and self-directed play. And this consensus on the health-giving properties of play is making an impact at top levels. The government's recent £100 million pound outdoor play budget, encouraging outdoor play for children, is rooted in these findings. As was the Cambridge Primary Review in Feb 2009, which recommended a move away from early testing, and an expansion of playful time and space, in primary education. (Though the same government that wants to build play parks also bizarrely rejected the Cambridge Reviews recommendations. Obviously when you get inside the gates of the school at 9 o'clock, Gradgrind still rules...). Stuart Brown's recent book on Play is magisterial on this research.
And yet I have a problem when the power and potential of play is so tightly tied to child development alone. This keeps play in that place that the educationalist (and good Swiss Calvinist) Jean Piaget kept it – as the scaffolding that falls away, eventually, to reveal the man and woman of good character (copyright David Cameron, I don't think). However, there is a mounting body of research on the continuing effect, throughout our lifespans, of what the ethologists call "neoteny" – meaning the extension of juvenile characteristics throughout the lifespan of an organism (the biologist Stephen Jay Gould was the first to really flag this up).
And by juvenile characteristics in humans we mean flexibility, curiosity, thirst to learn, indefatigability, optimism … that is, play. What's distinctive about humans is how pervasive this childness is – which is not the same as childishness - in our lives. It's this neoteny, this continuing flexibility and response-ability, that allows a brain-damaged human to recover some of his or her faculties through will and training, but prevents a similiarly-damaged chimpanzee from progessing beyond their impaired condition. (Again, I take this from Brown's Play).
Now here is the first place where my deep scientific take on play touches my high political take on play. A cross-mammalian truth about play is that its flourishes best under conditions where immediate scarcity and danger has been kept at bay: the rough-and-tumbling cubs on the savannah may be posing risks to each other as they jump about, but they are distantly protected by their parents, and are usually replete in terms of food, water and rest. (I'm reminded of the time when I asked a little boy in a Bristol school whether he could tell me when he felt that he had stopped playing. I was trying to find out whether they had a sense of when they "got down to work", of what their sense of the social limits of play were. His answer to when he stopped playing? "When I'm exhausted".)
We even see this relationship between play and scarcity in the movie version of Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Whenever The Man and The Boy know they have a moment's defensible respite from the eco-apocalypse they dangerously travel through …Well, books are read, jokes are performed, the last can of Coke in the world is cracked open… the urge to creative conviviality bursts through. In short, play (and its derivatives – arts, sports, scientific enquiry, learning, craft) are what we complex mammals compulsively do when we are not faced with the urgencies of survival.
So here's the big question: what happens to us when societies move almost exponentially further and further from the urgency of survival, as western developed societies have over the last forty years? To me, since the counterculture of the sixties right up the internet of the oughties and tens, it's obvious what's happened. There has been a huge and widening disjunct. Between, on one side, a neotenic and playful human nature that's become ever more resourced to explore its potentiality. And on the other side, there are traditional institutions of employment, education, commerce and democracy which are struggling to contain, match or even dampen down this unleashed, amplified and lifelong playfulness. (With some honourable exceptions in education, of course – Montessori, Steiner, Reggio Emilia, Summerhill, and to some degree the work of FutureLab in the UK, and the Institute of Play in the US).
I often cite the internet as the phenomenon which most clearly shows the shaping, constitutive power of human neoteny and play. Through a combination of planning, vision, misadventure luck – and perhaps, also to expand upon the strange word in the title of this conference, an evolutionary fatedness - we have ended up in the tenth year of this century with the ultimate planetary playground. A structure loose enough to be effective, generative and fecund, but with enough governance and design that it simply doesn’t fall into a set of incompatible fragments.
Yes, rough stuff can happen in this playground; it has to be managed sensitively and civically; and I don't doubt it will takes a global village to be able to raise our children, and develop ourselves, in cyberspace - in ways which minimise the darker tendencies of the human condition. But the possibilities for creation and self-expression, for sociability and collective action, for generating a consciousness and conversation that can effect a better stewardship of this planet, both interculturally and ecologically… well, you don't have to be Al Gore (but it helps) to see the Net one of our major tools for progress as a species. And I would claim that no matter the historical specifics of its design and origination, the reason why the internet is such a transforming and revoultionary force is because is draws, very deeply and directly, on our playful and neotenic natures. That is, the Net isn't just an analogy of our playful natures – it may well be homologous with that nature, branching from a similar root in our species-being.
As they say, much more of this on the website, in the book… But I wanted to leave this room full of educators and techies with one caution, and one request.
A caution: don't presume that computer games are the only obvious conduit between a) the growing importance of play, as a developmental process and increasingly a positive identity for young people, and b) the curricula and pedagogy you design and teach towards. I've just reviewed a very impressive book for the Independent about the importance of video games, Tom Chatfield's Fun. Incorporated. But my one objection to it was his conflation of two things - the essential nature of play, with the particular nature of rule-bound games.
It Ain't Necessarily So. From my reading of the scholarship, play demands that we potentiate widely and fully to remain adaptive and response-able. Even if we stick to games, this means entertaining what James Carse called the infinite game as well as the finite game. That is, infinite games in which the rules freely change according to the creativity and desires of the players. As much as finite games - those regimented, tightly iterated, conquest-and-victory oriented game-worlds, both in consoles and online. What really got my warning bell ringing in Chatfield's book– and it's been ringing for a while – is the way that such game-play presents a delightful spectacle of team-loyalty and self-discipline to corporate recruiters and Chinese government officials alike (the Chinese state is a huge investor in online game worlds). A conference I was at in New York recently descrbed the burbling dutifulness often found in World of Warcraft not play, and not labour, but 'playbour' – the familiar grind of the work ethic transformed by trolls, monsters and self-chosen routines. And worse, when online, this playbour provides a stream of behavioural data that could easily find itself in less-than-idealistic hands – whether subtle marketers, or not-so-subtle Communist party (or NSA) officials.
To state my worries simply and briefly: I think play is also about a box of generic Lego bricks, as well as the rule-book of a game. That is, play should also be about the mental and physical freedom to combine simple elements according to your whim, your insight and the exponential fantasies of your pals. There's no point in our neotenic energies being powerfully amplified in the mainstream of our lives, for these energies to be immediately corralled back into a slightly more lurid version of our already over-administered, over-instrumentalised lives. I propose a rebranding: let's call it World of Workcraft.
I also have one request – and it's partly an answer to my one caution. Within the next few years, London (or some other major British city) needs to host a massive, multi-discplinary, cross-practice conference on play – its science, its global history, its applications in the real world. As Chatfield's book demonstrates – after all, it is called Fun Inc – many vested interests and powerful parties (advertisers, governments, corporate managers, even educators) are beginning to invoke the power and potential of play. But in my view, they're basing their claims on merely partial bites of the expanding and dense pie of play research and practice. And if they do so, they will make bad policy and bad decisions.
I always invoke Brian Sutton-Smith's book The Ambiguity of Play because it is to me the only example I know of an intellectual approach to play that's remotely adequate to its complexity and richness – and even that, as he would himself admit, is only a start.
So with a profound belief in fertile messiness, I'm hoping to get a few indications of the possibility of such an event from the tweeting, blogging and gossiping masses before me. But James Carse's even more salty definition of play hovering before my eyes: she who must play, cannot play. So, TedXers, and I mean this with all profundity… Do What You Like!