Wednesday 31 July 2013

Rethinking the place of work, rest and play in the 'self-consistent' life

I wrote a post on 'Children's loss of play' a couple of years ago and I continue to reflect upon my central thesis. That is, could the failure of adults to understand the nature of play and its importance, be depriving their children of play, and at the same time offering them life models that might just shape their own use of time in negative ways when they grow up?

In my last post on this topic I cited Kenneth R. Ginsburg's work that suggests play is critical for children and fulfils many needs:
  • Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength.
  • Play is important to healthy brain development.
  • Through play children at a very early age engage and interact in the world around them.
  • Play allows children to create and explore a world where they can achieve a sense of mastery.
  • Play can also help them to conquer their fears while practising adult roles, sometimes in conjunction with other children or adult caregivers.
  • As they master their world, play helps children develop new competencies that lead to enhanced confidence.
  • Undirected play allows children to learn how to work and create with others, to share, to negotiate, and to resolve conflicts.
  • When play is allowed to be child driven, children practice decision-making skills, move at their own pace and discover their own areas of interest.
  • Play is essential for the building of active healthy bodies.
But as well as being important for children, play is important for adults. In 'The Christian at Play' Robert Johnston argues that play is part of life and hence should be part of our consideration of what it means (quoting Thomas Oden) "to live self-consistent and intelligible [lives] of faith in Christian community".

Johnston has many interesting things to say.  As someone who has a spent a lot of time as a researcher observing children at play, I have become conscious that I know less about play as an adult. Here's how Johnston describes play:
I would understand play as that activity which is freely and spontaneously entered into, but which, once begun, has its own design, its own rules or order, which must be followed so that the play activity may continue. The player is called into play by a potential co-player and/or play object, and while at play, treats other players and/or "playthings" as personal, creating with them a community that can be characterized by "I-Thou" rather than "I-It" relationships. This play has a new time (a playtime) and a new space (a playground) which function as "parentheses" in the life and world of the player. The concerns of everyday life come to a temporary standstill in the mind of the player, and the boundaries of his or her world are redefined... But though play is an end in itself, it can nevertheless have several consequences. Chief among these are the joy and release, the personal fulfillment, the remembering of our common humanity, and the presentiment of the sacred, which the player sometimes experiences in and through the activity. One's participation in the adventure of playing, even given the risk of injury or defeat, finds resolution at the end of the experience, and one re-enters ongoing life in a new spirit of thanksgiving and celebration. The player is a changed individual because of the playtime, his or her life having been enlarged beyond the workaday world (p. 34).
His comments are interesting and lead me to ask, might play have a different human value to rest and leisure? Is it a distinctive part of the life of the adult as well as the child, and can my engagement in play bring glory to God and help me to live a life of faith well?
We Protestants have always been suspicious of play and idleness, trusting instead in the worth of work and diligence in all that we do. But in the process we have often failed to understand the biblical sense of 'rest' and have been just as confused about 'work and its purposes. We know that God ordained rest at creation when He rested from the work that he had done (Genesis 2:2-3). As well, we know that physical rest has a relationship to spiritual rest and God's ultimate plan and design for us, that we are to seek him in our lives. Our lives are to demonstrate that we understand and seek the only true rest that is to be found in Christ (Matthew 11:28-29). Play is an added complexity because it isn't the same as rest, but it may be pursued as part of rest, as we seek in the midst of life, rest for our souls not just our bodies. Understanding work, rest and play is made even more difficult because in the modern era the place of play and rest, relative to work, has become confused.  Johnston cites some of the following trends:
  • As the amount of leisure time increases for some, the meaningfulness of work has decreased.
  • While opportunities for leisure and play have increased for some, there has been a reverse trend for many women with paid work adding to many of their previous responsibilities at home.
  • For many, work has become simply a means to an end; primarily, a way to increase purchasing power for life, with leisure increasing dramatically as an area of expenditure.
  • Free time does not necessarily mean rest, leisure or play for those who Staffan Lindner labelled "the harried leisure class"; those for whom consumption dominates non-working time.
  • What people do when they have time away from their jobs can often be simply idleness.
There is much that could be added to Johnston's list some 30 years later. For example, today I suspect that Christians, like people in general, have a tendency to binge on rest and play, and I'm also not too sure that anyone has much more leisure time. For many, there is an inconvenient truth about the dominant place of work, as they seek to earn money to allow insatiable consumption in all parts of life.

In an age where most people feel time poor, and we spend too much time working and too little time entering into rest, a consideration of the role of play in life might just be helpful for many of us. As well, we may need to give careful consideration to the way we model what rest and even play mean in our lives as others observe us.

If you're interested in this topic, you might have a look at issue #24 of Case Magazine on 'Work in Progress'. You might find this helpful.