Been A While, Crocodile!

Apologies for the extended hiatus on publishing anything in this blog. I’ve been pooling an ever-mounting mountain of resources which I intend to dole out in heavy doses. I have not been idle while this blog was asleep. Recently, I have been making my rounds, meeting play advocates local to the US Mid Atlantic, New England and Canada. Each new connection sparks many more, which propel me further along this whimsical web of ideas, inspiration and insight.


Today I would like to direct your attention to an article published in Playground Magazine. You can find the PDF here. The inspiration to post this article comes from my long-standing advocacy for “immersion” in video games. However,  any act of play can be immersive so long as players engage their imaginations – this doesn’t require much. That said, there is something uniquely charming about a theme park, derived largely, I believe, from its immersivity and spectacle. This is a very hard thing to achieve, and Disney definitely demonstrated a mastery of it, but it doesn’t come cheap and takes a lot of smart and creative people working together to get it right. If you’re on a budget and working from scratch, designed immersion is probably not the way you want to go. There are many cheaper, less heavy-handed options one could employ that children would dive right into. Children are clever inventors, with imaginations many of us bigfolk envy, and if we let them run the reel, they’ll inevitably surprise us with how lost in play they can become. If you’re going for designed immersion, though, make it massive or move on.

Our kids throw around the word ‘epic’ like they are in Mythology class. To them the word describes an essential quality so awe-inspiring one is lost for words. That’s what you have to be to design for immersion. Museum exhibits sometimes approach this quality, though suspension of disbelief for me is easily shattered by informational signage. You have to try really hard to sell your world to an audience, because a robot-shaped jungle gym isn’t fooling anyone. That robot needs context – where was it made? – what was its purpose? – does it still function? – is it missing parts? – can you fix it? – what was it doing before it stopped moving? – does it have any friends? – why can you go inside it? … I would discourage anyone from explicitly answering these questions in the design, but the environmental context must complement the world you’re trying to immerse someone in. This term is not literal; immersion is a metaphor. Immersion requires surrounding someone in an idea, as if immersing them deeply in water to see what’s in it, and blurring out anything ‘outside.’ For homework, I recommend you go watch the movie Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki. You’ll be fully immersed in the spirit world for the better part of two hours. Be compelling and sell us your story. Sell us your world by enveloping us in something rich and breathing, hopelessly inextricable from its surroundings, of utmost purpose and sincerity. Build that, and we will come.


“If you watch young children play, you will notice that they create games, characters, situations, whole worlds in which they immerse themselves with intense concentration.”

–Daniel Greenberg


The Philosophy of Play

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Once upon a Central Park, 1969, Richard Dattner of Dattner Architects set forth a manifesto called ‘Design for Play.’ Not long ago, I posted similar sentiments that as designers we are beholden to the imperative to design for play – not how to play. Dattner’s book of the same substance is one I am currently pouring over. Dattner’s words have coaxed forth numerous questions in me concerning the essence and meaning of play.

A recent professor of mine, to whom I owe a great many things – not least of which the inspiration and encouragement to pursue the design of ludic environments – used to run an exercise with our class on definitions of key words and concepts. Rather than regurgitate the (albeit considered) dictionary’s laundry list of popular uses, he recognized the process underlying the construction of definitions: experience. A friend of mine once described dictionaries as historical documents useful as starting points, but not to be referenced as instruction manuals. The importance of experience in defining anything is fundamental and essential. The exercise our professor ran us through was not unlike the exercises I imagine dictionary authors must also engage in.

With a concept like play, simple definitions are contentious and its philosophical variations rather divided. Dattner attempts a definition of play in his first chapter, and outlines his philosophy of it immediately. For him, work and play are opposite ends of a dichotomy. He writes that it is the ‘reason’ for acting, rather than the ‘activity’ itself, that determines whether someone is working or playing. This is one philosophy of play which I think is important to earmark, because I encounter it often.

In his elaborations of this philosophy I found that Dattner defined and redefined play frequently. In the spirit of my former professor’s exercises I challenged myself to indulge the author’s philosophy and play at extracting his definitions of play. In this way, I took on the role of my professor, observing and recording, and Dattner became my subject positing his experience as definition. Here are Dattner’s definitions of play, extracted for you from his chapter on the philosophy of play:

Play is:

  • supremely voluntary
  • doing what you want to do when you want to do it
  • a manifestation of internal needs and wishes
  • a necessity we require of ourselves
  • a full expression of personal freedom
  • exercise or action for amusement
  • freedom, room or scope for action
  • similar to magic
  • extraordinary
  • a process of mastering
  • concerned with the achievement of goals
  • about process not product
  • its own reward
  • freedom or abstinence from work
  • re-creation of ourselves
  • engaging in freely chosen activities that restore our sense of completeness
  • impossible to “do” – it is an end in itself
  • a manifestation of choice; [choice manifestation]
  • freedom
  • theatrical

Dattner also briefly defines what play is not.

Play is not:

  • professional athletics
  • bound by reality
  • deprived of freedom of action or expression
  • restricted or hampered

Reading this chapter certainly fanned the flames of my pursuit of play theories, and had me filling the margins with notes. Rather than agreeing or disagreeing with Dattner, I observe that these are some of the many definitions and negative definitions of play, and hope to discover many more from you and other readings.

If this post had you considering your own definitions of play I encourage you to post your thoughts below. I also gratefully welcome recommendations for further reading.


 “Work can be forced, but play, like love, is a supremely voluntary undertaking.”

–Richard Dattner


To Fathers Who Encourage Play

I’ve wanted to be like him my whole life, to fill the shoes I’ve since grown out of, and though we’ve both changed a lot, I still compare myself to him. It is a privilege to have a father in my life, a privilege I have shamefully taken for granted. Privilege is weird that way – a concept as much guiltful as it is enviable. But growing up with a father around does not complete the package of privilege I was born with. This best of men in my life set out to ensure I’d feel loved, to encourage my curiosity, to listen to my inane ramblings, to trust me (vigilantly) with fire and sharp objects and to mend me when I lost control of them, to let me wander even when that took me on whirlwind river runs that would’ve made Huck cackle and Pan crow.

Father and brother before a big adventure

Father and brother before a big adventure

Not only would my dad let me wander, he taught me to love it. A regular Sunday pastime of ours guaranteed soggy shoes, muddy knees, spiderweb masks, and fingers deeply buried in sand hunting for fossilized fortunes fallen from million-year-old mouths. We never did find the fabled Megalodon dentition we dreamed of, the holy grail for tooth trackers, but 1000 things as fun and a lifetime of love for the mysteries of nature – worth more than the most pristine jet fang. I owe him for cultivating the passions that drive me to explore farther and deeper, to reach for a dream and to appreciate those things I never expected to find.

Exploring misty mountaintops

Exploring misty mountaintops

We are very much alike in our differences. My father loves and knows more about the cosmos than I could ever hope to, while my eyes are set firmly on the terra before me. Yet, whether we’re staring up-and-out or down-and-in, it was my dad who taught me how to see. He taught me that the growing things have names, and in learning them I would have access to their secrets and gifts. He taught me that when I had questions without answers I could still reason my way to good ones. No surprise that I clung to science and the natural world, to naming trees and learning landscapes. The real surprise is how we made play of some serious business. Science is meticulous, methodical, complex, and infamously unforgiving of belief or myth – which may run counter to what many of us understand play to be. Superficially cold and unfeeling, it’s not hard to see the dark side of science. Looking deeper I think you’ll find true science to be an utterly human discipline, driven by curiosity, passion, love and caring – it is an attempt to understand the universe on its own terms – a suppression of ego and expectation – it is marveling at the unimaginable – it is playful, repetitive tinkering – it is dreaming and storytelling – it is hands-on, dirty, messy fun. My father understood the essence of good science and called it by its right name: play. Our journey through history, mysteries, muddy earth, swollen creeks, mossy trees, craggy mountains and winding country roads – began with the promise of play. There was the world and we would wonder at it in our own way – as a companion in our playful indulgence.

Confidence in climbing

Confidence in climbing to new heights

Some things we learned:

  • Pine needles, thrown with practice, make aerodynamically excellent darts, and scalps tempting targets.
  • Fire doesn’t keep mosquitoes away as well as we might wish, and its smoke hurts to breathe. It is awfully fun to scorch marshmallows in.
  • A good walking stick is hard to find, but worth holding onto. Sand clean and coat in flaxseed oil to keep it around longer. Give it a name.
  • Often, the best part of the trail is leaving it behind for a bit.
  • The root of a Turk’s Cap Lily is edible. Barely.
  • Some trees are better for climbing, others are for falling out of.
  • Black bears can bite through “unbreakable” bottles – and are especially determined after rummaging through the pack of spices.
  • Painful, frustrating, exhausting adventures are neither comfortable nor glamorous endeavors, though they make magnificent memories – which last an awful lot longer than their associated discomforts.
  • A game is only as good as the storytellers playing it.

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Miles of marsh

I’d have a difficult time itemizing all the things my father taught me. By now many of his lessons are so deeply internalized, I take them for granted and no longer recognize them as lessons I had to learn. With increasing frequency I find myself acting in ways that remind me of him – a laugh here, a reaction there, the way I explain new things to the unfamiliar. Much play is made of mimicking society and the people closest to us – and some twenty years or more later, I find myself revisiting those familiar plays and remembering how much they mean to me. We don’t forget the fun we’ve had – we integrate it into our being. And this may be the most valuable lesson yet, one that has taken me quite some time to learn: play becomes who we are. Play often, freely and young – and don’t let age slow you down – keep playing, keep discovering the richness of life we are all entitled to and which is available in abundance all around. My father never stopped, and neither shall I.

Here’s to you, dad! I love you, man. And cheers to all the other wonderful parents out there who are around to play with their kids. We need you.

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On Adult Play

Of significant interest to me in studying ‘play’ behavior is how it factors into the modern adult life. I am experientially convinced that humans do not cease to play upon reaching adulthood. However, the forms of play often undergo significant metamorphoses. After all, what are we doing when we spend an evening out at the bar with friends? Hours watching Netflix at home? Online gaming? Board games? Street sports? Shopping and ‘playing’ house? Going out on dates? Making love? Cooking something new? Paying to watch spectator events? Goofing around with our children and pets? Travelling?

May 18th, 2014

Adults and Teens on the 21 Balançoires, Montréal, Canada

In adulthood, we often live out the adventures we imagine as kids – and because the adventures are real, they may also be stressful. There are no time outs. Frustrations abound despite all our efforts. But child’s play is ridden with stress too – that’s just part of adapting and growing! If you’ve ever watched children sharing a conventional playground, there are proverbial fountains of tears being shed (crying is an exceptional way to relieve stress, by the way). Sometimes we blame immaturity for a child’s tears on the playground – I have – but their reaction is completely normal. As we age, the expectation in most cultures is that we cry less and tolerate more. Maybe that’s fine, but becoming a ‘resilient,’ ‘well-adjusted’ adult does not imply we ought to lose our celebratory, whimsical spirit. We all desire to play, to let loose, to feel the burden of social obligations lift for a moment and find the freedom to explore ourselves, our physical environments, and each other. Unattached. Unfettered. Alive.

I strongly associate the act of play with ‘living.’ Whether or not this association is valid, I find myself entering adulthood wholly unwilling to part with play. It is essential to who I am as a person, and I see the value in it for others as well. On the matter of play in adult life, I have written one ‘critical literature review’ grounded in environmental psychology, and a few fictional narratives that explore it experientially via archetypal landscapes. I plan to make these available in an upcoming post, but will send them through another round of editing before I do that. In the meantime, I’d like to get some feedback from you, dear reader.

What are some ways you play in your adult life?
Please share your play-habits in a reply below.


“It’s not that we spend five days looking forward to just two. It’s that most people do what they enjoy most on those two days. Imagine living a life where everyday are your Saturdays and Sundays. Make everyday your weekend. Make everyday a play-day…”

–James Murphy