“Never deny a reality.” That’s the rule most acting teachers say, over and over again, to their actors-in-training. What they mean, these acting teachers, is that there are times during almost every performance when things aren’t working exactly according to script – like those times you discover your zipper is open, or one of your fellow actors misses an exit or entrance, or a vital prop is missing or part of the set falls down or a smoke alarm goes off. No matter how good of an actor you think yourself to be, you can’t go on as if nothing has happened. You’ve got to include it somehow, work it back into the performance.
I’ve taken that particular adage well beyond the stage. It seems to apply to everything – play, art, life. The trick is to acknowledge reality – especially realities of the intrusive kind, even when it’s not what you want it to be. To accept it and weave it into whatever you’re playing at, regardless of script or intention. This practice has become key to any success I can claim at leading games or living life.
Generalized beyond original intentions, we call that “inclusiveness.” It’s an art. It’s an art that kids practice when they’re playing on the street and a little kid wants to play too, or a car comes along, or the ball gets lost in that mean person’s yard.
Inclusiveness, I’ve learned, is pretty much what playfulness is all about – as, apparently, am I. Accepting, acknowledging, weaving it back in to the fabric of fun.
Inclusiveness is what makes playfulness such a valuable state of being. It invites the world in. And us, too.
Focus, on the other hand, is an attribute of play. Also very valuable. Essential, in fact, to the pursuit of any art or work or game. But playfulness is different.
Inclusiveness is part of the responsiveness thing. The more responsive you are to the environment and every perceptible manifestation of playkind present, the more you have to play with, the more playful you can be.
You can’t, however, play with all there is to play with at the same time. There’s just too much to let in, to include. So you don’t just play, you play something. Something like a game.
You’re in the park: you, your dog, and your frisbee. And so are other people, and dogs, and frisbees, and baseballs, and babies, and little kids, and squirrels and the leaves dancing in the wind and stuff. You, feeling playful, and your dog, always ready to respond to anything that can be remotely construed as playful, decide to get down and get frisky. So you run around and start what seems very much like a game of tag except you can never really catch the dog unless he wants you, and what your dog wants to do is get chased. So you stop to let your breath catch up to all this fun and you toss the frisbee dogward. And, lo, the game is afoot as well as apaw, ahand, and amouth. You’re both focused – on each other, on the frisbee. Everything else to blurs away into the background. You throw, your dog jumps up and catches, sometimes she even brings it back to you. Ah. That’s when it’s best. She doesn’t, I repeat, doesn’t run after squirrels. And neither do you. Because she is totally focused on the fun of the game. As you are. The frisbee is the thing that lets you focus on each other. That lets you play together. And it’s a beautiful thing. But, to stay beautiful like that, the squirrel, the little kids, the nice looking parent – they just have to be ignored as much as possible, for fun’s sake.
You’re playing. You’re playing playfully, even. But you’re not being quite as playful, or as inclusive as you were before when you were just frisking around. You’re responsive, but to each other to the game and the frisbee and the terrain and things you don’t want to bump into. But it’s not like it was at first, before the game started. Not so inclusive, so wild, so open to play with whatever and whoever comes your way – so, like, trippy, man. The fun you’re having together has become the reality that you can’t deny, to yourself, to each other. The game becomes the thing. Not playfulness, but play.
My Facebook friend Menno Deen asked me if I’d prepare a short presentation on “diversity” that he could use to help promote his Games [4Diversity] Jam. He didn’t have to convince me. Diversity (or, as I seem to be calling it, “inclusion”) has been a central theme of my work since, well, at least 1984. In the video that resulted, I explain why.
The New Games Foundation was this organization that would do these large-scale public events. There’s a long history of my involvement with New Games and you can find much of it on my sites: deepFUN.com and this one.
I had this one experience at the second time New Games produced a festival for maybe a thousand people. A lot of the games were cooperative, some were competitive. It didn’t really matter because the focus of the games was that everybody could play. Anybody who wanted to play could play. If the game seemed too hard, well, we’d change the rules or make the play area larger or smaller or we’d bring another ball in – whatever – find some way that everybody could play. That was the basic assumption of the event because what we were trying to do was to build community.
There was this one game called “People Pass” – a silly, cooperative game that has no actual purpose in life other than to give each other a little thrill ride. We would stand in two parallel lines, side by side, arms raised. The first person in line would get passed overhead from the front to the back of the line. (here’s another picture)(It could have gotten a little too intimate, but, by the time we played it, we had already established an implicit agreement that we would take care of each other. Weren’t there to hurt each other or abuse each other’s trust. We would touch each other, but gently, and make sure that the people we were touching felt safe.) I was helping to facilitate, and this one guy decided to join the game, and he was in a wheel chair. So we took him out of his chair and passed him overhead, all the way down the line.
First of all, the look on that guy’s face – well, he was, literally, transported. At the same time, he was just filled with this glee and laughter. It was beautiful. And, for me, it was the first time I had ever put my hands on somebody in a wheel chair. It was the first time! And that was the source of the realization that led me to everything since. It was so beautiful. So deeply “touching.” And it was something that I could help happen, and seemed to happen so naturally. People seemed so ready to do that, just given the permission, given the opportunity, given the sense of playfulness and the knowledge that the whole purpose was just to share fun – that they could create a community where everybody cared about each other. A caring, inclusive community.
And that’s really the point.
Allow me to explain my shirt:
There’s a ME on top and a WE on the bottom. And the WE is like the shadow of the ME. But together, they form a new thing, which kind of looks like a butterfly. I don’t mean to get too poetic. But if we can create a community that supports each individual in the community, we can create something truly beautiful. We can create what I call a “play community” – a community that is focused on inclusion.
Mara Kaplan’s article, Using open-ended play equipment to promote inclusion, recently added to the increasingly encyclopedic Play and Playground Encyclopedia, is devoted to describing a new piece of playground equipment called “Rushmore.” It’s a little difficult to tell from the image why she considers this particular playground installation so worthy of our attention. But a few minutes watching this video will make everything inspiringly vivid.
Who knew that you could bounce your way up or down those ramps? Or somersault on them? Or hide under the structure and quietly rock yourself to fun. My guess is that even the designers were taken by surprise by most of the stuff kids wind-up doing.
Which is precisely why we should be interested in and inspired by play structures such as Rushmore. They are invitations to invention. As such, they are opportunities for children to discover their own best way to fun. All children, regardless of ability. Their own, personal, best.
When we compare a piece of equipment like Playworld Systems’ new Rushmore to a typical climber and slide, we begin to see further how open-ended play can not only promote imagination, but also inclusion. The typical climber and slide does not allow any accommodation for differences in a child’s ability. A child who has poor balance and cannot climb by himself will either need to stay on the sidelines or an adult will need to help him. By putting an adult into the mix, you stifle the opportunity for children of different abilities to play together.
On the Rushmore, however, that same boy with balancing issues can figure out other ways to engage and play with his peers. On Rushmore, children jump, climb, roll, crawl, balance, pretend, and whatever else they can devise.
There’s a variation of Duck Duck Goose. Wait, I wrote about it a couple years ago, here:
One of the variations of Duck-Duck-Goose includes something called a mush pot. The mush post introduces a consequence to “losing,” even though you don’t actually lose forever. “The goal,” explains the Wikipedist, “is to tag that person before he is able to sit down in the ‘goose’s’ spot. If the ‘goose’ is not able to do this, he become ‘it’ for the next round and play continues. If the person who is ‘it’ is tagged, he has to sit in the center of the circle (the ‘Mush Pot’ or ‘Stew Pot’ ‘Cookie Jar’ or ‘Pickle Pot’). Then the ‘goose’ becomes ‘it’ for the next round. The person in the middle can’t leave until another person is tagged and he is replaced.”
In all my many mentions of the game, I’ve never once described the Mush Pot variation – even though I knew it all too well. Yes, it’s a legitimate variation, and yes again, it adds a legitimately, shall we say, poignant wrinkle to the Duck-Duck-Goose experience. But, for my purposes, it was a wrinkle I didn’t find worth playing with.
My purpose, my not-so hidden agenda in playing games, has always been to play inclusively. Ever since kids taught me about the theater of games, it seemed to me that my one overriding goal was create a theater in which everyone is an actor. I could see no purpose, none at all, for excluding anyone from a game, even if the exclusion was only until another unfortunate goose fails at her appointed round.
So this became a rule for me, and has remained so my entire career. Everybody who wants to play gets to play. It seems so counter-productive to me to keep someone from playing, for any reason, for any time. And it’s gotten so that when I watch school teachers or gym teachers or camp counselors or anyone leading games excluding a child from play, I get so genuinely puzzled. Because it’s become such a basic assumption for me that that’s what games are for. That’s what I am for. To provide that opportunity. To create that kind of theater, that kind of community. The kind where everybody plays.
Having recently observed the mush pot in action, courtesy of some of the significantly playful students of the University of Illinois, I was served with yet another insight into the deeper truths of mush pottery:
When you’re in the mush post, you don’t have to worry about anything: getting chosen or not getting chosen, or about figuring out whom to choose, or not. You can watch the game, or not, with equal impunity. You’re not actually out of the game. In fact, now that you think about it, you’re in the very middle of the action. Yes, yes, you can’t play until someone else loses, but, on the other hand, you don’t have to.
In a way, one might compare the mush pot experience to a momentary taste of aging, illness, incarceration, staying after school, being in school: there are all these games and people playing them in orbit around your personal space. And you don’t get to or have to play any of them.
Kids have played with this experience for generations, in games like Prisoners Base, Capture the Flag, Stealing Sticks and Kick the Can. And in all instances, having to stay in the mush pot seems to be a most viable alternative to having to be out of the game entirely.