Play Literacy:

Play is so important that it is considered a “right” by the United Nations. And yet, in today’s world play is often seen as a luxury, not a need. Consequently, millions of children around the world do not have adequate access to play and are not developing to their full potential.” – Playground Ideas

The camp promotes the children’s “play literacy”, the capacity to play well, alone and with others. The purpose of the camp is thus simply to play, finding the joy and excitement in play. While this may seem frivolous, we believe it is important to remember the value of play, now more than ever. In fact, in an increasingly complex and ever-changing world, the ability to play may well be one of the most important things to learn.

Play literacy can be perceived as a  “Bildung” for the modern age, a contemporary educational ideal that stretches far beyond school. Play shouldn’t be seen as preparation for life, and it’s not restricted to childhood, but should be a vital component of a good life. To be “play literate” is also to develop and maintain a playful mindset, which informs and shapes our entire life, even when we’re not playing.

Despite a massive body of research, we are left without a single, clear definition of play. This is sometimes considered a problem, but it is simply a testament of the diversity and complexity of play. It means that play can be relevant and meaningful to all of us, since there is never one *right* form of play. We can each shape our own ways of playing and cultivate our own play communities.

Just like play, a play literacy is intangible and hard to pin down in one particular meaning, but we can identify some of the core principles:

Play literacy embraces the joy of play and the confidence to insist on the importance of play. It builds on a notion of participation, where players are able to engage in the ongoing negotiation of meaning and purpose. In play, we are open to each other and the world, listening, exploring, embracing the unknown and unexpected. We respect each other, sharpen our empathy and share the desire to keep the play alive as a good experience for everybody. We are less limited by norms, habits and structures, as our imagination and creativity comes alive to help us see the world anew. When we play, there is no right way, nothing is necessary, but anything is possible. Failure gets a completely new meaning, as it is not a setback, but something to play with and build upon.

Remember, these are all side effects of play that we can only really hope to harness if we allow play to thrive throughout our lives.

In the following, you can read more about these principles as well as some guidelines on designing for play.

Joy

Even the most serious adults can probably still remember what playing feels like, and just thinking about it might make you smile, since play is inherently joyful.

We are often taught that we need to set goals for ourselves, to focus on results, but in order to enjoy life, we must also be able to appreciate  the here and now. This is exactly what play can teach us.

In play, we dare to simply enjoy the moment without too much concern about the future or potential outcomes. We trust each other to make an effort to let the play go on, and to sustain the joy. As Stuart Brown writes, “play provides a continuation desire. We desire to keep doing it, and the pleasure of the experience drives that desire”.

If you are play literate, you have the courage to insist on the joys of play, even when you face the widespread claim that it is frivolous or a waste of time.

Participation

Participation is a central aspect of play. When you play, you participate, and participation is always tied to power dynamics. If you don’t have agency, you don’t actually participate and it’s not really play. When you play, you effectively change the world, if only for a brief period of time. Play is not detached from the world, but provides us instead with a unique way to interact with it.

“play events capitalize on people’s capacities for creativity, or externalization. Nothing exists— at least, nothing that is playful in character— until the participants decide to invest the moment with this quality. When they withdraw that energy and enthusiasm, the moment dies. Play makes people aware of their capacities for social agency.” (Thomas S. Henricks)

If this sounds a bit abstract, it’s simply describing how play invites us to be active participants, who enter an ongoing negotiation about rules, roles and purpose. Nothing is set in stone when we play, and we have the power to shape the course of the experience.

Openness

When we’re playing, we adopt a particular kind of openness, towards other people and the world at large. We accept that many things are possible, much can happen and exciting adventures are just around the corner. In this state of mind, we are not resisting or afraid of changes or the unexpected, no, it becomes a catalyst of the good play experience. If you refuse to embrace the openness, if you say “no” to all the ideas and limit the possibility space of play, you are usually not considered a good play mate

Imagination & creativity

The willingness to say “yes, and…” sparks your imagination, which is suddenly much less restricted. Your everyday surroundings can become a magical universe, horses can be unicorns, flying is easy, anything is possible. This Imagination fuels creativity, as you can see the world in a new light and play allows you to explore how to create new experiences and solve complex problems.

Reshaping Failure

Play shows us a completely different way of understanding failure, when compared to the widespread fear of failure we encounter throughout life. Failure is usually not something you want to experience, and we’ll sometimes go to great lengths to avoid it. In play, failure is rarely considered failure at all. If you’re trying to achieve something in a certain way, and it fails, it will just be part of the experience without weighing you down. It might even lead to a better and more fun situation, as the new and unexpected often propels you in interesting directions.

Empathy, friendship and community

Play reminds us that we always need to find the right balance between “me” and “us,” between the individual and the community. Play only works if we’re simultaneously aware of the needs of ourself and the other. It’s a dance, back and forth, looking into yourself and reaching out into the world.

In this sense, play becomes a demonstration of empathy, an exploration of being together in ways that respect us all. Play is a lesson in compassion and humanity, a gentle reminder of all the things we have in common across age groups, nationalities, religions, socio-cultural backgrounds and other differences that usually keep us apart.

Courage

When we’re playful, we are less afraid and more courageous. With failure not really being an issue, an increased sense of agency, imagination firing on all cylinders and strong social bonds, we’re more inclined to embark on new adventures out into the world.