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Bernard L. De Koven

Defining Playfulness

Or not.

I'm beginning to think that I'll never be able to define playfulness comprehensively enough to embrace it in its fullness. It's just too diverse, too idiosyncratic, personal, profound to allow itself to be confined into anything satisfyingly definition-like. I've come to the conclusion that the best we can do is describe experiences, instances, moments in our lives that appear, in retrospect, at least, to have proven themselves unquestionably, undeniably, overwhelmingly playful.

So, here's one more resource—a brilliant, evocative, and deeply personal description from Maria Lugones, in her paper Playfulness, ‘World’-Traveling, and Loving Perception

We are by the river bank. The river is very, very low. Almost dry. But mostly is wet stones. Grey on the outside. We walk on the stones for awhile. You pick up a stone and crash it onto the others. As it breaks, it is quite wet inside and is very colorful, very pretty. I pick up a stone and break it and run toward the pieces to see the colors. They are beautiful. I laugh and bring the pieces back to you and you are doing the same with your pieces. We keep on crashing stones for hours, anxious to see the beautiful new colors. We are playing. The playfulness of our activity does not presuppose that it is a particular form of play with its own rules. Rather the attitude that carries us through the activity, a playful attitude, turns the activity into play. Our activity has no rules, though it is certainly intentional activity and we both understand what we are doing. The playfulness that gives meaning to our activity includes uncertainty, but in this case the uncertainty is an openness to surprise. This is a particular metaphysical attitude that does not expect the world to be neatly packaged, ruly. Rules may fail to explain what we are doing. We are not self-important, we are not fixed in particular constructions of ourselves, which is part of saying that we are open to self-construction. We are not worried about competence. We are not wedded to a particular way of doing things. While playful we have not abandoned ourselves to, nor are we stuck in, any particular ‘world.’ We are there creatively. We are not passive.

Playfulness is, in part, an openness to being a fool, which is a combination of not worrying about competence, not being self-important, not taking norms as sacred and finding ambiguity and double edges a source of wisdom and delight.

So, positively, the playful attitude involves openness to surprise, openness to being a fool, openness to self-construction or reconstruction and to construction or reconstruction of the ‘worlds’ we inhabit playfully. Negatively, playfulness is characterized by uncertainty, lack of self-importance, absence of rules or a not taking rules as scared, a no worrying about competence and a lack of abandonment to a particular construction of oneself, others and one’s relation to them. In attempting to take a hold of oneself and one’s relation to others in a particular ‘world,’ one may study, examine and come to understand oneself. One may then see what the possibilities for play are for being one is in that ‘world.’ One may even decide to inhabit that self fully in order to understand it better and find its creative possibilities. All of this is just self-reflection, and is quite different from residing or abandoning oneself to the particular construction of oneself that one is attempting to take a hold of.

If you look for reasons to be playful, you may find reasons, but you won’t find playfulness.

If you look for playfulness in the young, you will find it. If you join them, you will find it in yourself.

When you draw, you’ll find playfulness. When you throw your drawing away, you’ll find deeper playfulness.

When you’re alone, and you dance or sing, you’ll find playfulness. When you dance and sing with strangers, you’ll find deeper playfulness. When you dance and sing with the people you love, you’ll find playfulness of the deepest kind.

You’ll find playfulness when you daydream, when you pretend, when you make things up, when you make things for the fun of it.

Love lightly and you will find playfulness. Love yourself lightly and you will find playfulness. Love your days lightly; love what you do, lightly; love lightly the people you’re with when you do it; and you will find playfulness—everywhere.


About the Author

Bernard De Koven is the author of The Well-Played Game. He writes on theories of fun and playfulness and how they affect personal, interpersonal, community and institutional health.