The Power of Play and the Need for Playing

Written by Gary Schwartz on . Posted in Gary Schwartz, Improvisation, Spolin Games, Team Building, Theater Games

The spirit of play develops social adaptability, ethics, mental and emotional control, and imagination. These are the more complex adjustments a child learns through play. In play there are adjustments to new situations constantly: Play experience can prepare the person for purposefulness in non-play activities, for true play creates the incentive to use one’s best ability:Ththrough play a person can develop a pattern of self-reliance and self-confidence. Neva L. Boyd, from the essay, A Theory of Play (Simon, 1971)

Something viewed as fun instead of a chore erases any expectation of judgment or the approval or disapproval of others.

Play creates a happy emotional condition of the organism-as-a-whole.
Play involves social values, as does no other behavior.

Viola Spolin said, “Acting requires presence. Playing produces this state.” She could have said living full and joyously requires presence — and playing produces this state because when people are at play, the physical and mental state merge into a unified whole. devoted only to the problem at hand — the playing of the game.

After all. a game is just a problem or set of problems) that needs solving. When playing, the intuitive ability engages and the mind becomes fully focused on the problem that the game requires. Action and thought merge into an integrated consciousness to attend solely to the play activity.

Play releases an individual from the past and ghostly voices land brings attention into the present. Fear and memories of past failures or hurts vanish because there is simply no room for them to exist in the present. There is a release from the bondage of the past wounds and a negative future is not anticipated. There simply is no time for past or future during the present of play. This peak experience is labeled as fun. Fun is the antidote to the ills of time. Fun produces a unification of mind and body and creates full involvement.” Fun is not trivial; it is essential. Contrary to the Puritan concept that life is suffering and acceptance of suffering is the goal, the purpose of life is the cultivation of happiness. Life should he fun.

 What’s So Fun About Fun?

I tin is not an escape from reality. It is a doorway into reality. Fun is a psychological state where attitude and judgment are suspended and the mind and body act in harmony to accomplish a goal. Physiologically, vv hen fun occurs the pulse races a bit, awareness expands, and the senses are sharp. The body rises to meet the challenge and accepts the unknown outcome of playing a game with positive expectancy. An individual experiences any activity as fun as long as they fully give themselves over to it without judgment. Something viewed as fun instead of a chore erases any expectation of judgment or the approval or disapproval of others. True play creates vitality, happiness and fulfillment.

 What Spoils Fun?

Judgment and opinion block flow and stop the fun. In fact, any activity that takes attention away from full involvement with the self-chosen task at hand spoils the fun. Spolin defines judging as., “Playing safe before you can act; no choice made to act spontaneously: Subjective placement of good/bad, right/wrong based on old frames of reference. cultural or family patterns (personal) rather than a fresh response to a moment of experiencing; imposition” (Sills. 1999).

Judgment while playing causes a schism of self. The mind/body unity dissolves into fragments of critical thought. “Well that was good.” Or, “I could have clone that a bit better’. or “I can’t do this.” Any type of self-consciousness within the activity of play reduces one’s full attention to the problem at hand. The self is divided into various selves. An internal dialogue begins, either con­sciously or unconsciously. The new problem becomes worrying about your ability to perform or thinking critically (intellectualizing) while playing. The problem of the game becomes secondary and the primary focus now is on the self (subjective) instead of the task (objective). In extreme cases, disorders develop from overly judging one’s self and obscure true self-awareness and objectivity.

Unfortunately, people grow up in a culture that promotes self-consciousness. “Think before you speak”, “Know where you’re going”, “I lave a plan”, “Here’s how you should to do it.” Schools teach more by rote and less by experience. They teach students what to think, not how to think. They focus on amassing intellectual information and testing retention. Students learn less from actual doing (trial and error) and rely on others who have already judged what lessons should be learned from an appointed task (parents, teachers and bosses). People work to please them as authorities rather than to please themselves. This pattern of working to please others creates the seeds of co-dependency. Spolin calls this disease of modern times the Approval/Disapproval syndrome.

Approval/Disapproval syndrome not only distorts fun, but also creates a poor motive for living. Approval/Disapproval reactions come in several forms.

•           Conformity (passivity), apathy, dependency, loss of creativity)

•           Rebellion (anger, negativity, bullying, manipulation)

•           Withdrawal or Escape (addiction, depression, fearfulness)

 If the person plays for the sake of gaining someone’s approval or avoiding someone’s disapproval, the satisfaction of playing for its own sake vanishes, replaced by the satisfaction of being valued by someone else. When validation is sought from others personal freedom is lost.

The healing power of play for its own sake:
Two cases of present time play alleviating pain of traumatic backrounds.

In 1989, I conducted a workshop at Children of the Night Shelter, a most remarkable program in Los Angeles, dedicated to taking in child prostitutes, ages 11-17, and helping them remain off the streets by aiding in finding a better situation.. parent or early caregiver first victimized most of the child prostitutes. Many had been tortured by treacherous pimps, and some testified in lengthy court proceedings against the pimps who had forced them to work as prostitutes. In most cases these children do not have appropriate homes to return to. and the only relative who is a suitable guardian may live far away from the child’s hometown.

The workshop of games was predominantly not oriented towards theater, but more recreational in nature, vet the atmosphere of non-judgment was critical during the presentation. The structure was strict, which is necessary for kids with no boundaries, and there was a feeling of tension in the room similar to prisons and rehab centers where boundary issues are often violated.

The first game played was called, “When I Go to California.” It is a game of memory where each person in the circle says, “When 1 go to California, I’m going to take a trunk (or any other needed object).” The second person says. “When I go to California, I’m going to take the first item and something new. Each player takes, in exact order, all that has been mentioned and adds their item. The game continues until it becomes difficult to keep track. It is essential that the coach also plays. The game is difficult for anyone and professional skill is not an issue in this game.

As the game began. some of the children, suspicious of me as an adult and potential threat. tested to see my reaction to their situation selected so-called shocking things to “take to California.” “When I go to California, I’m going to take my smelly hoochie. my set of works, a pack of condoms, my dildo, etc.” As my turn came. I repeated the litany of their ‘tools of the trade’ and added a pair of sunglasses. I made no distinction or value on the objects as long as I was playing. The smirks and snickering vanished after one round. The next round became objects of real need, like money, a car, my teddy bear, favorite pajamas. little brothers, etc. I became a fellow player without judgment and the playing became spirited and fun. It did not get turned into a “lesson,” which would have kept the children on their guard. The rest of the workshop progressed like any other with laughter and great fun, and the children had

a chance to play and enjoy themselves without the burden of scolding or even solicitous. well meaning adults (hidden condescension). The games were played over and over during the rest of the month, providing both kids and supervisors with a break from the “rehabilitation’ model that colored many of the other activities. Judgment turns fun into a “lesson.”

In Torrance, California. the Out of Darkness art gallery was created to help survivors of sexual child abuse heal through art therapy. I led an interactive games workshop of adult artists who have survived sexual child abuse and were using art therapy setting to help them work through issues of pain, betrayal and horror. The artwork was indeed powerful and often disturbing. This atmosphere of ‘working’ to heal the past made it feel like I was working in a victims’ ward. There was great fear and timidity in many of the artists. Victimization became an identity.

We began by playing 3 Changes a game of observation. Two players look at one another, then turn around, make three changes in their appearance and then turn back and identify each change on their partner. This led to mirror games and then to more and more challenging, but fun games, with no mention of what each game was intended to produce in the players. The workshop produced great laughter and energy. I got a letter from one participant that said the workshop was like ‘taking a vacation from herself’ and she very much appreciated the time away from her past.

The paradigm shift for a happier life: It’s not whether you win or lose — it’s how you play the game. As trite as this phrase has become, it is true wisdom. View the problem as a game; solve the problem as in a game.. .A game changes what you “should do” into what you “want to do.” Every; problem can he housed in a game and resistance to the playing can be solved by a simpler game. Playing produces autonomous action. Resistance (self-consciousness) to working on a problem dissolves when approaching the problem as play.

Play produces presence. Presence is all there is — right now! Being in the now prompts right action and creates a joyous life. Play is a birthright, and the ability to play should he cherished. The good news is that this experience is always at hand in the thousands of games available.

References & Footnotes

Simon P ;197, A Theory of Play’ Play and Games Theory in Group Wax A

collection of Papers. Chicago: Office of Publications, University of Illinois.

Sills, P. (Eds) (1999). Improvisation for the Theater (3rd ed.) Chicago: Northwestern University Press.

1 Ghostly voices: The past; emotional dependency on rules of behavior subtly woven into our own voices, psyche, and gestures by parents, teachers. spouses, institutions, employers. dictators, and culture. Vida Spolin, “Improvisation for the Theater’ Northwestern University Press.

2 Involvement: Earnestly entering into the game or exercise; playing: discipline is involvement: involvement with object creates release and freedom to relate. -Improvisation for the Theater. 3rd Edition Viola Spolin. Northwestern University Press.

Play is a birthright, and the ability to play should be cherished.

Paradigm • spring 2004           7

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Gary Schwartz

Gary Schwartz

Gary Schwartz is a former student of Viola Spolin and the only teacher to earn an endorsement from both her and her son, Paul Sills. He is the founder of Intuitive Learning Systems and Improv Odyssey devoted to exploring, and expanding the work of his Mentor,

Comments (1)

  • Margot Escott


    Lovely article about how improv can transform and bring play to traumatized and addicted children. Gary’s skills as an empathic and authentic coach create a safe space for all who work with him. It is true that the purpose of life is the cultivation of Happiness!


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