The arrival of ‘Cam’ always causes me a frisson of excitement. It’s certainly the best alumni magazine to come through our letter box, and rarely disappoints for either human interest or a bit of an intellectual stretch.
The latest number arrived today and I was immediately captivated by an article about ‘play’. ‘Excellence often requires many of the qualities of play’ I read. ‘This’ I thought, ‘is my kind of article’.
Based on a new book by Patrick Bateson and Paul Martin (Play, Playfulness, Creativity and Innovation CUP) I interpret the piece as a research-based argument that I should play more. After all, without his playfulness Flemming may never have discovered penicillin. And if they did not play with sticks when young, chimps wouldn’t be nearly as good at the tasks which playful scientists set them.
It made me wonder which aspects of my childhood larking about have equipped me for life today. I used to like lighting fires – and am still pretty good at it when faced with the challenge in a holiday cottage or after a big clear-up in the garden. Fire lighting for me was part of Scouting which was, I suppose, an organised form of play. I now see the rudimentary weekend camps as a school of leadership. That sounds impossibly pompous, so I should explain that I mean that it was an arena for making mistakes which would teach you not ‘how to be a leader’, still less ‘what to do if you are a leader’, but that ‘the big life lesson that it is okay to make mistakes.’
Reflecting on the article I recognise that it’s not so much play as playfulness that matters. The word ‘play’ is used for all sorts of activities which, while not intrinsically meaningful, are super-serious. This is ‘play’ with the fun taken out – which is a one word oxymoron (if you can have such a thing). It seems that it is play in the proper, relaxed, and purposeless sense which allows for later purposefulness.
That’s the paradox of play.
It’s not that you can write a Shakespearian sonnet by letting a million monkeys play with typewriters. It’s that the next time you read something really interesting, moving, poetic or original the chances are that it will be written by someone who has had a good dose of play in their younger life and who still retains that quality of playfulness.
Bateson writes that people can be helped to become more creative. How? ‘by freeing up time from the pursuit of predictable goals, and by avoiding time-wasting distractions …’ But he goes on, (and this is the bit I especially like) ‘Daydreaming, far from being a wasteful activity, can lead to links being made between disparate bodies of thought.’
That sounds a bit prosaic – but the reality could be amazing. The point is that no one knows what will happen if you allow yourself to be playful and creative. That’s the fun of it. And the wonder. And the paradox.
Let us play.