Play for Wellness

So much of my work experience and study of true wellness has led me to the ultimate conclusion that the single source of all sickness is a deviation from our true nature. The search to define our true nature has required reflection upon the qualities possessed and expressed by optimal beings. I never dare restrict my study of optimal living to human beings. Animals, both wild and domestic can teach us much in the area of self actualization.

One primal characteristic ubiquitous in the animal kingdom is a child-like state of playful activity.

This video leaves the viewer contemplating the true reason for the existence of play. Schopenhauer, during the 18th and 19th centuries, observed that all play of animals consists in the discharge of superfluous energy. Since we know excess and grandeur are exclusive to humans, the fact that play is present in the animal kingdom leaves us asking the question, “What is play and why does it exist?”

A brief history of the Philosophy of Play

English: A picture of the Dutch historian Joha...

Dutch historian Johan Huizinga  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This exploration of play amongst animals is a worthwhile endeavor for conceptualizing and defining our own human expression of play. An often debated question is whether or not animals can be considered to be playing if their actions are driven by instinct. The physical activity of young chimps serves an obvious function; to socialize and physically prepare for adulthood. During the 1950’s Johan Huizinga was one of the first to argue that the observable discharge of superfluous energy of animals (and children, for that matter), despite its biological utility, is aptly classified as play due to the fact that the animal is more conscious of the immediate subjective enjoyment than the long-term benefit to themselves and their group. (Huizinga, 18) This clarification satisfied the first element in his explanation of requisites of play; freedom, order, seclusion and temporary perfection.

German philosopher Eugen Fink

Such vague parameters led many to find play in too many areas of life to effectively understand and leverage play.  During the early 1960’s, Eugen Fink sought to distinguish animal play and human play. From a strictly biological perspective, Fink argues, animal play does resemble human play. The difference is that the play of humans “possesses a meaning and exclusiveness of its own.” (Fink, 101) Now, when considering the play we all engaged in as children, it is hard to accept this division from animalistic play. Even now, with our respectively advanced linguistic skills, we find it difficult to provide a good reason for our early play besides our jovial enjoyment. It is only in the play of adults that this “meaning” takes on a more discernible role in the life of the player. The “meaning” for adults, is a diversion from the seriousness in one’s life.

American philosopher Joseph L. Esposito

Such subjective meaning of play is largely possible due to the variable nature. Although play takes on many forms across the world, the function remains consistent. Play, no matter the motivation, serves to define sociocultural norms and encourage psychological maturity. Joseph Esposito articulated in a 1974 article published in Psychology Today, explains that though play may serve these functions to the self and the society, the inherent possibility imbedded in play serves a metaphysical purpose to the soul of the individual. (Esposito, 114) Though we sometimes make our own rules of play, therein lies a certain variability or unpredictability that allows us to rise above our 5 senses and explore the innermost yearnings of our soul. Such yearnings as triumph, salvation, security and immortality are fulfilled in play. 

philosopher Bernard Suits

Though now framed as a human pursuit for metaphysical satisfaction, our conceptualization of play was still somewhat subjective during the late 1970’s. What one takes serious, others may find laughable. It was in 1977 that Journal of the Philosophy of Sport published an article by Bernard Suits. In it, Suits addresses the very language with which we ponder play. He noted that there is an inherent ambiguity in the word, “play”. (Suits, 19) One can play a flute, act in a play, make a game saving play, etc. Suits suggests the use of “autotelic activity” to describe play. He goes on to explain that autotelic activity is a necessary element but not fully sufficient for an adequate definition of play. Play must also contain a non-serious use of a resource. Sometimes the resource is money (gambling), land (football) or energy (playing with food), however, one resource is always played with; time.

Play as we know it

Unless you are a long-time reader of this blog, it is most likely the case that this is the most time you’ve ever contemplated play since recess was your favorite school subject. The manner in which we divert ourselves and seek enjoyment in life should be one of the most important items on our agenda.

Perhaps it is our Puritan work ethic that has driven play-time towards the margins of our consciousness. America, after all, is known as the land of opportunity. Opportunity for what you ask? The opportunity available to the individual with maximal liberty and limited restrictions. Perhaps it is our very form of democracy that has allowed for our instinct to accumulate resources with our need to play.

While securing enough material goods to ensure ones survival is important to ones health, it is equally important to nurture the soul through playful expression. All the bills, jobs, relationships and disappointments we stress over in adulthood converge in to one common human reality; that we are aware of our own mortality. Play allows adults to forget about their constant knowledge of their own mortality by temporary transportation to a state they left in childhood many years prior.

Adults at play in Washington: D.C. organization Spacious wants to bring play back to grown-up life in the District. (photo credit: The Washington Post)

No matter which philosopher is more correct in their definition of play, one thing is certain. Play is food for the soul and an essential element shared by the most healthy and self-actualized beings on Earth. Play for your wellness!







4 thoughts on “Play for Wellness

  1. Pingback: Playing the game of sport | A Mover's Blog

  2. Pingback: I’ve always hated the mercy rule. Does that make me a poor sport? | A Mover's Blog

  3. Pingback: Moving (better) for Wellness: a look at life, sport and doping | A Mover's Blog

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