Taking Play Seriously

A reflection on the nature and purpose of play
May 11, 2021 Updated: May 11, 2021

There is an old story retold a hundred times from Anatole France to Tomie dePaola about an old juggler who performs his very last act before a statue of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child in a dark church. This playful spectacle of flying colored balls was a gift of delight offered to heaven, and one blessed by a delightful miracle for, as the story goes, when the clown falls to the floor in death, the Child catches the last falling ball.

The dying clown could offer nothing but his playful frivolity. After all, the human race is a frivolous race; but play has a purity about it that is profound. Old things are made new again by the power of play, a power wielded by young ones and those old enough to be children again. There are fewer lessons to be taken more seriously than the lesson of play—of making things new, of playing well in all stages of life and learning, so that the delights of the visible and invisible may play a part in every soul’s journey.

Play School

If anything is taught in the work of education, it should be play. True education draws the imagination toward activity and creativity—toward engagement and enjoyment, toward play, by keeping things fresh, by making things new, as things are seen for the first time on the one hand and seen again for the first time on the other.

Parents and teachers who play with their children and students will teach and train. They will teach through delight and toward delight. They will re-create as they recreate. There is no such thing as dull play, and neither should there be any such thing as dull education. In fact, the Greek etymology of the word “school” means something like play or leisure. But we have got a hold of the idea that school is a participation in work, not play.

As a definition for “play,” the distinction Tom Sawyer offers should serve with strong authority: “Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do … play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.” So be it. Play is not a participation in what is ordinarily considered to be work. Although one could say that a lot of play is very hard work, requiring effort, it isn’t a burden or indolent. Play really is something one does for its own sake, as is any act closely connected to goodness, truth, and beauty. People just do it because play is a marvelous thing to do, and all children—even young animals—are simply born with that desire to play.

But if play has anything obligatory about it, it is to be the playmate of wonder, for hand-in-hand they go, encountering and engaging the beauty of things with delight. Play exercises the imagination to recreate the goodness of things in a smaller way in order to participate one day in the goodness of things in a larger way.

Play is both the beginning and the end of wisdom, as it delights in truth before it is fully known and then again, once it is known. The delight that introduces children to the world, and to the work of the world, regains its sway once that world and its work has been undertaken and understood as good, true, and beautiful. Play prepares children for serious engagement, but that labor in turn prepares people to play again as old men.

Thus, wise men play for the same reasons that children play: to bask in the delight of truth, goodness, and beauty and, in so doing, to catch a glimpse or some fleeting flash of the eternal in the transient. This is the great game of hide-and-seek between man and truth, and this interplay centers on the centripetal or (pardon the wordplay) theotripetal force in human existence. Those who play, whether infants or ancients, are happy by definition, and it is to the happy whom all should look to as a guide in the everyday effort of every day. Happiness is akin to a type of holiness and keeping many balls at play in the air is a symbol for a life of beatitude.

The Problem of Play

Sadly, children are losing the ability to play nowadays—which is part of the current crisis in education. Given free time, young ones often do not know what to do with themselves, being so accustomed to incessant, plugged-in entertainment and distraction. Emotions, personalities, and thoughts cannot emerge or develop out of passivity.

Given experiences of the good, true, and beautiful, juvenile cynics are not drawn to delight, to play. They have been reared and trained in the illusion that there is little to nothing desirable outside oneself—a principle antithetical to play, which is never self-centered, but always involving another, whether real or imagined, whether sentient or insentient, whether visible or invisible.

Besides these psychological and cynical obstacles to play, there is a utilitarian pressure in our society that makes unadulterated play more and more unwelcome. We are all used to toys that are practical, that teach numbers or colors or geography or some such thing, but are they educational in the right way? As John Keats famously remarked, we hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us, and the same can be said of toys. Toys that have teaching as an obvious pragmatic end are not fun and play and education ought to go hand in hand.

Children must learn to play again, and this should be part of the purpose of education and childhood in general in the modern age of amusing ourselves to death, to borrow Neil Postman’s title.

We as a society need to restore the natural progression of moving from fresh delights toward familiar delights in the procession of Shakespeare’s world stage: from the infant all the way to second childishness and mere oblivion, “sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” Education begins with teeth, with eyes, with taste, with everything—with the play that is a propensity for proficiency, leading on to labor, and through that labor, on again to play, to delight in the mystery rather than the mastery of things learned.

The backyard, the classroom, the church, the sports field, the dining-room table, the office: all should be playgrounds of delight in the same great game of redemption. The whole world is but a ball, a cherished toy, a dear plaything.

The Secret of Serious Play

The Book of Wisdom in the Bible says charmingly that Wisdom was with God from the beginning, playing in his presence and in his creation—a lovely thought and image. And one that fits well with Plato’s maxim that wonder is the beginning of wisdom. Man is called, beckoned, to play before the cosmos just as the juggling clown did.

Play and the spirit of play must not be dismissed as foolishness, but as wisdom, the highest goal of education. Virtue is characterized not by force, but by facility. Education should aim for this virtuosity, this virtuosic play, ready and rearing to rejoice in the good, true, and beautiful things, uniting work and play in a single vision of wisdom.

Of course, play is something that tends to fade to some extent after a child reaches a certain age, perhaps marking the mysterious boundary of childhood, when play becomes less important in one’s life and utilitarian work comes to dominate, but play certainly never disappears. It can reappear in a flash, and adults are often caught marveling at the lesson of play given by the tiny teachers at their feet.

They watch and learn even as children play dead, imitating the little juggler who died even as he played, and see that children play dead better than we die. We’re not very good at dying—and we’re no better at sleeping or singing or playing. But little children can sleep, sing, and play in a pure and beautiful way. Their silly little actions have about them that quality of perfection which is what even death itself would be in a perfect world, for, as any game well played bears the delight of perfection in completion, so too would a life well-lived bear a similar delight in its conclusion. This is the secret of profound play, of serious play.

Sean Fitzpatrick serves on the faculty of Gregory the Great Academy, a boarding school in Elmhurst, Pa., where he teaches humanities. His writings on education, literature, and culture have appeared in a number of journals including Crisis Magazine, Catholic Exchange, and the Imaginative Conservative.