The Playful Continuum

I have been a student of the socio-cultural phenomenon American’s know as PLAY, for over ten years. My obsession started when I began working as a substitute teacher for the so-called, “Elementary” grades, (a terribly outdated label), especially Kindergarten and first grade. It was the first time I had ever experienced an environment that was purely playful by right. In other words, 90% of Kinder and First instruction better have some PLAYFULNESS in it or you will NOT REACH THEM.

And I am not referring to orchestrated or formalized playfulness. 

TRUE PLAYFULNESS has a journey. There is unexpected outcomes, even if you do the same thing every day. Thus, non-stuctured PLAFULNESS, is growth. Plain and Simple…It is GROWTH, and thus, HEALTH…and HOPE.

Upon this somewhat romantic thesis, I have tried to assess the evolution of PLAYFULNESS in America, so far as I have had an opportunity to observe what we all know as PLAYFULNESS and its antithesis. 

What is PLAY?

A basic definition of PLAY for this essay would be 

  1. An act, either social or independent, in which the individual is able to experience growth and self-affirmation, through the unstructured practice of JOYFUL and experimental self-actualization, that produces self-realization, through self-animation.


The heart of my studies begins and, to a large degree, ends, at/in/on the PLAYGROUND. 

The joy of the PLAYGROUND is, and always will be, its lability. PLAYGROUNDS are the humans first encounter with complex organization and sociality, but always in a PLAYFUL context. While I agree with the need to resist UNIVERSALIZING or essentializing a practice, I have yet to meet a single philosopher, ancient or otherwise, who doesn’t recognize unstructured PLAY, so-called CHILDISH PLAY, as a universally understood idiom.

I read a book recently, and the central question was, DO YOU RECOGNIZE PLAY WHEN YOU SEE IT?

Of course you do. GO to any PLAYGROUND. And you will see and experience PLAY.

 That’s because, to a child, everywhere has the potential to be a PLAYGROUND. 

Thus, there is a dualism which exists between the child and the PLAYGROUND. It can be actualized anywhere, at any time, and yet there is a formalized understanding of the PLAYGROUND as a particular space, with recognizable practical features that encourage PLAYFUL sociality and interaction. 

Unfortunately, as children get older, schools, and society begin to redefine for the child, the purpose and meaning of PLAY. Unstructured PLAY is equated with childishness, and thus, useless and perhaps, dangerous to establishing order.  As a child grows, PLAYGROUNDS are supplanted by PURPOSEFUL play, like athletics or competitive academics. By the time the student reaches seventh grade, opportunities for unstructured PLAY are almost non-existant, and what is perhaps more impactful, the PLAYGROUNDS are gone. 

For some reason, American academia has decided that PLAYGROUNDS are no longer necessary for all students, elementary and above. 


When I discuss this interesting historical PLAYFUL procession with those in Junior High and above, all the way to college, they say the same thing. THEY MISS THE PLAYGROUND.  They miss the swings as much as they miss the social spaces that PLAYGROUNDS create spontaneously and organically. 

This suggests that by removing PLAYGROUNDS we are eliminating historical spaces of intense and satisfying learning that are always optimal because the behavioral and psychological predispositions they enable are favorable and adventurous, regardless of the age-group.

PLAYGROUNDS are and will always be the most impactful practical basis for  human development.