Making Space For Play

Dec 11 2019

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Left to right: Jane Bradbury from Easy Peasy, Michael Rosen, Holly Stoppit, Jack Jones from South London Gallery

I'm sitting in Paddington station, beaming the happy glow of a play-geek who's spent a full day of contemplating the nature of play with a gang of fired-up play enthusiasts. 

I was invited up to London by the Wellcome Collection, to speak at their 'Perspectives On Play' symposium – a whole day of talks and workshops, designed for 6th formers who are studying for their Psychology and Health and Social Care A levels. 

The symposium was a tie-in with the Wellcome Collection's 'Play Well' exhibition, which itself is tied-in with Michael Rosen's newly published 'Book Of Play.' That's quite a tangle of tying-in.

I was part of the closing panel discussion, exploring the theme of 'Making Space For Play.' Each of the three panel members (myself, Jane Bradbury from Easy Peasy- an app designed to help parents play with their kids and Dr. Matluba Khan, an architect who specialises in designing outdoor play spaces in consultation with children) were invited to each deliver an 8-minute interactive talk, before responding to questions from the audience. 

I got so much from listening to and chatting with the other panelists, workshop leaders and Michael Rosen himself, not to mention hanging out in the Play Well exhibition; this blog could easily turn into a book. But for your ease and my sanity, I've decided to focus on the parallels between Michael Rosen's keynote address and my talk about play and space.

To retain the hands-on spirit of the day, there are little invitations for you to play along the way, in italics.

In his keynote address, Michael Rosen offered playful pearls from his vast treasure chest of experience as a children's author, poet, television presenter, academic and parent. He began by asking us the question, “What is free play?” The young people offered their thoughts:

  • choice
  • making it up as you go along
  • using your imagination
  • having fun

Michael then offered his own definition; 

Free play is “trial and error, without fear of failure.”

I love this definition and I feel like it describes perfectly the conditions I strive to create, as an adult play facilitator. In my talk, I asked the young people to have a stab at why they think adults stop playing. They suggested:

  • age – their bodies won't allow them to play
  • responsibility – adults have so many responsibilities, there's no time for play
  • maturity – being a grown up excludes access to play

I was interested to hear these suggestions from a group of 16-19 year olds. I would cite 'fear of failure' / fear of being seen as stupid, vulnerable, bad or wrong as being the biggest barriers to adult play. 

From what I regularly witness in my workshops, it seems there's a hell of a lot at stake for adults to drop their guards and play freely. As grown ups, we spend our time carefully cultivating our adult personae; we like the world to see that we are coping, navigating the endless obstacle course of adulthood and coming out on top. In fact, look, we are positively thriving, successful and completely in control! To step into the world of free play, where the aim of the game is to risk failure and remain in the trial and error of unknowing, can be a terrifying prospect to many.

At the beginning of all my workshops, I offer the participants permission to be absolutely shit at everything we do. When people are trying to be good, they can find it difficult to access that beautiful, vulnerable 'trial and error' quality of play. Explicit permission to be shit seems to bring down the pressure and help people relax into open discovery.

Michael spoke about how we (humans) have always used play as a method of discovering and inventing, citing Mr. Volta's ridiculous electrical experiment. Apparently, once upon a time, a Mr. Volta placed one piece of metal on top of his tongue and one beneath, with a piece of foil wrapped around his tongue, connecting the two. The metal and saliva caused a tingling on Mr. Volta's tongue, which led to the discovery of travelling electricity, or 'Volts'. This sounds like a pretty stupid thing to do, the sort of discovery that could only come from a very playful, curious mind. 

My brother once snorted popping candy. But that's another story.

In my talk, I spoke about how people can access a sense of space through clowning. I spoke about how I invite people to drop into their natural curiosity as a porthole into the infinite state of clown. The clown's playful curiosity dissolves any notions of reality being rigid or fixed. When a clown's around, normal rules do not apply. 

If you'd like to experience the state of clown for yourself, pick up an object that's within your reach. Pretend you've never seen one of these before. What does it do? What could it be? How could it be used? 

By putting themselves in a constant state of discovery, clowns liquify reality, opening up possibilities which wouldn't cross our minds if we were in our everyday self-conscious, logical mindsets. In my clowning workshops, we explore what happens when we focus this potent space-making clown attention outwards towards objects, architecture, other clowns and audiences and in my fooling workshops, we explore what happens when we focus this curious, playful spacious attention inwards, towards our sense of Self.

In my talk, I explained how we all identify with particular labels, for instance, I am a clown, I am a dramatherapist, I am a teacher, I am a woman, I am white, I am small, I am 40, I am an auntie, I am a vegetarian, I am the best kitchen dancer in my house (fact). 

If you fancy, you could write a list your own labels. How do you identify? 

In my fooling workshops, I invite people to dive into these identifying parts of the Self (also known as roles / masks) and play with them, with curiosity and lightness. We turn them up until they become caricatures, we expose the limitations and explore the nuances within each role. 

You could try this now - pick one of your labels and draw a caricature of it. Have fun sending up the extremes of this role - both the 'good' and 'bad.'

The theory is; if we over-identify with our labels, we can get rigid and fixed, which leaves no space for the unexpected, the unknown, or the unfamiliar. It's difficult to avoid the unknown, unexpected and unfamiliar and if we try to do this, we can find ourselves in deep trouble when the unknown, unexpected and unfamiliar come nonchalantly knocking on the door or casually pop round to tug the rug out from under our feet. 

Regular exposure to the unfamiliar helps us build resilience and learn the vital survival skills of adaptability and flexibility. 

If we try really, really, extra hard to eliminate the unknown, the unexpected and the unfamiliar, the only life available to us will be incredibly boring and drab. Of course, we will still die at the end of it. Nothing can protect us from the inevitability of death! A cheerful thought there, for a blog about play.

If this is our one and only life, we might as well have a laugh, that's what I say. Jumping into aspects of our Selves, and splashing around with utter irreverence, allows us to laugh at ourselves, which naturally creates space around our sense of Self. 

Through playing in this way, it's possible to discover that our roles are not limited and we are not limited to our roles.

Michael Rosen spoke about daydreaming as a form of play. He asked us to share a mysterious memory with the person sitting next to us, something we've always puzzled about. He suggested that simply pondering on a memory and asking yourself “What if...” can open us up to infinite possibility. 

I like to think about daydreaming as a way of playing with time, you can shine your imagination backwards or forwards, constructing new memories and fantasies.

You could have a go at this if you like, think of a mysterious memory or a fantastic fantasy and wonder about it, from all the angles you can find.

A big theme of Michael's talk was the importance of agency in both free play and learning. Agency in this instance refers to “the capacity, condition, or state of acting or of exerting power” (Mirriam Webster Dictionary). Michael explained how play can connect us with our power to effect change. He suggested that if you strip play back to it's bare bones, what you're actually doing is embodying change. To sing, we change the use of our body into being an instrument, to dance, we change the use of our bodies by moving them about in extraordinary ways, to daydream, we wonder “what if....?” changing our position from 'knowing', to a position that's open to infinite possibilities. He distilled the impact of play into one simple sentence:

To change stuff, you change yourself”

If play can give us power to effect change, then how can adults brave the discomfort of baring their vulnerability and invite more play into their lives? In my talk, I spoke about some of the ways I create safe space for my workshop participants:

  • Boundaries– at the beginning of a session, I'll lay out the boundaries so that everyone knows what's OK and what's not OK to do in the session. The boundaries offer containment, helping people know where the edges are allows them to dive deeper into free play.

  • Optionality– everything I offer is an invitation (as opposed to a demand) and people are free to opt in and out of the exercises any time they like. Free play needs to be freely entered into, or it takes on the quality of compliance – which is the total opposite to what I strive to offer in my workshops. 

  • Permission to play as you are– this is a big one in my work. Many adults seem to have a fixed idea about what play looks like – they think they have to be energetic, graceful, bendy, funny, witty and they don't! Play has many different guises – I invite people to play just as they are and this way play will find them.

  • Positive feedback– in my classes, I eliminate criticism, to help people drop deeper into their vulnerability. I've written another blog about how and why I only use positive feedback

  • Confidentiality– I ask people to hold what happens in the space as confidential – taking what other people do and say in my workshops, out of context, can be damaging for people's reputations.

  • Building Trust – the first part of all my workshops is devoted to building trust, because without trust, there can be no free play. It takes time for adults to let their guard down and allow themselves to be fully seen, so we stay with the trust building until the room feels safe enough to begin the grand reveal of the inner selves.

I hope this blog conveys some of the ways that play can be a powerful force for learning, developing, growing and healing and that it offers some ways to create space for play. I have experienced play as life-enriching on so many levels throughout my life – it seems daft that play is “supposed” to stop at the end of childhood. I recognise that I am extremely lucky to have two incredibly playful parents and to have grown up in a circus, where everyone played for a living. But play is available to everyone who seeks it out. Whoever you are, whatever your age, make space to play!

The Play Well exhibition continues until 8th March 2020 at the Wellcome Collection in London. 

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