Out comes the top hat, the cane, the old moth-eaten cardigan and the suit shoes. That’s my outfit, done. And for my sister: the dress, make-up, long necklace, heels and pin. These pieces of clothing and other accessories are all far too large for us and we’re in hysterics as we help dress each other. Today we are going to enliven the world with our best act yet.
We speak to each other in our deepest voices, as we attempt to envision what our grandma and grandpa would say in each new scenario we concoct from the strange world of our imagination. We play unbounded by space and time until called back to mundane reality with that most unromantic summons: “Kids, it’s home time!”
Fast-forward 15 years and I’m living and working in Kenya. I sit on the sidelines watching 20 children run around playing football. They dribble the ball while dodging and darting around each other, laughing and wrestling as they play. They call each other “Ronaldo”, “Messi”, “Neymar”, pretending to be famous players – imagining a life beyond their reality.
As I watch, I reflect on the significance of play for these children. Many have lost their parents to HIV/AIDS; two had contracted the disease, leading their father to attempt to prematurely end their lives; some had been abandoned and others abused. Far from simply being a fun activity, their experience of play was re-socialising and preparing them for adulthood.
Jeremy Rifkin writes that “Play is the means for creating attachment, mindfulness, trust, affection, and social bonds when growing up and a way to maintain sociability in adulthood.”
Play also creates empathy, in several ways. It builds the empathic infrastructure in your brain throughout your childhood development; repairs empathy for you after an experience of abandonment or violence and conflict; and, (re)establishes empathic extension between people in conflict.
In other words, play is particularly important where attachment, trust, affection and social bonds have been wiped out and need rebuilding.
This rebuilding occurs through play because it is:
Several children or adults come together for play. Play thrives on the participation of others and is often enhanced by people who have different ideas, views and understanding. The diversity embraced in the context of play enriches our understanding of the world and our place in it.
- Open and Accepting
Participants in play are able to express themselves freely, vulnerably and imaginatively. This openness to the free expression of oneself and other people creates an environment of bonding, acceptance and the exploration of new possibilities.
- Open-Ended and Relational
Children and adults can play for hours losing all sense of space and time. Life’s responsibilities and other demands are temporarily suspended for relationships to be developed and nurtured. Relationships facilitate identity formation, improve emotional intelligence and build social skills to function in adult life.
- Empathy Producing
Through the imaginative experience, play enables you to be transported into the “persona, roles and contexts” of the imagined other, says Rifkin. My sister and I imagined ourselves as our grandparents, while the children in Kenya imagined themselves as their favourite soccer players. When we do this we attempt to feel, think, and behave the way we believe the imagined other person would.
Rifkin ends his observation by suggesting that “Play…is far from a trivial pursuit. It is where we stretch our empathic consciousness and learn to become truly human.”
Where our humanity has been damaged through the exclusion of our voice from family or society, where we have experienced domestic violence and family breakdown, where we have been assailed by growing economic inequality and social fragmentation, play may well provide positive spaces where individual and collective social transformation can take place.
So give yourself – and your children, if you are a parent – the permission to get out the old costume box, or even take up a sport, so that together you can dream of and explore new social possibilities in a world that desperately needs more empathy and peace.