As I’m making my way home from my first ever visit to Leeds, I’m in this weird state of excitement and exhaustion that you often experience after a weekend well played. Yeah, I’m tired, but that is far overshadowed by an even stronger sense of hope, belonging, confidence and joy.

My reason for going to Leeds was a truly joyous, if slightly humbling, one: I was invited over to participate in the first ever CounterPlay “satellite” festival – CounterPlay Leeds.

HOW COOL IS THAT?

When I started working on the CounterPlay festival a handful of years ago, I always wanted it to be more than just a play festival in Aarhus, Denmark. I wanted the underlying ideas to spread, to bring play into new contexts and, in turn, to create a more playful society. More than anything, I hoped we could cultivate a community that would thrive and grow, transcending borders and boundaries, inviting an increasing number of people to play along. There’s a certain vulnerability in expecting this much from strangers, because what if it falls flat? Luckily, we’ve had so many incredible contributions coming from the play community, and the enthusiasm and dedication has far surpassed our wildest expectations. It seems like we have set something in motion that is not about to stop moving anytime soon and I’m beyond thrilled.

Thus, when my long-time Twitter friend Emma Bearman, who’s behind the wonderful “Playful Anywhere” in Leeds, suggested running a CounterPlay event in Leeds, I jumped with joy. YES! While the stars haven’t yet been aligned for bringing Emma over to CounterPlay, we’ve had many, many wonderful conversations on Twitter and just having the opportunity to carry on outside of social media was enough for me to head over to Leeds. Emma had teamed up with an amazing local group (including Robbie Foulston, Sophie Howell, Becky Sumerling, Jessica Penrose and Mel Taylor), and organised a wonderful event that oozed of playfulness. A special thank also goes to Leeds 2023 for supporting my visit and Leeds City Museum for hosting the event – what a lovely place!

It was supposed to be an informal “open space” for kids and adults alike, where we would be playing, talking and reimagining the playful city along the way. We had some conversations and I described the core values of CounterPlay, but other than that, they just ran with it. When I left for Leeds, I basically didn’t know what was going to happen, which was a new and quite exhilarating. I’m sure I could get used to that!

I wanted to open the event with a talk about my experiences and reflections on starting and running CounterPlay. I intended to build a bridge back to the festival, framing the current event and hopefully inspiring people to not just play, but also to think and talk about play. While it had too many words in it, at least some of those words seem really, really important to me.

I tried to convey the most important thing about CounterPlay, namely the playful atmosphere that makes it a safe space, where adults dare to be silly; where people open up and strangers connect; where the realm of the possible is expanded; where we engage in deep conversations that truly matters; where we are all less afraid; where we see play as a celebration of freedom and where participants perform a playful takeover because they feel real ownership.

I also hoped to describe how we insist that play is equally important for all of us, no matter our age or place in society, and that play is both an activity, an attitude and a paradigm.

Play is JOY / FREEDOM / LOVE.

All my words really boils down to one thing: the mere existence of play in our lives will make our lives better. Happiness are closely tied to the courage and capacity to play. Sever that tie and your odds of living happily ever after are reduced drastically. While I fully acknowledge that play has many, many extremely valuable side-effects, they are always less important than play itself. Furthermore, they are entirely dependant on allowing play the freedom to flourish. I find myself repeating these things, but just like when we’re playing, the repetions are part of the sense-making, part of the fun.

I paid a little extra attention to one particular side-effect, namely our imagination. When we play, our imagination is running on rocket fuel, and it becomes an essential catalyst of play, exploring as it is all the possible directions, ideas and actions.

Not only that, when we’re playing, we also develop our capacity to imagine how our cities, our societies, our relationships to other people and our lives could be different. There’s a beautiful quote by philosopher Martha Nussbaum in her book “Not For Profit” that encapsulates the human connection of play:

“When we meet in society, if we have not learned to see both self and other in that way, imagining in one another [] thought and emotion, democracy is bound to fail, because democracy is built upon respect and concern, and these in turn are built upon the ability to see other people as human beings, not simply as objects”

This is at the heart of play: seeing each other as human beings. Oh, how the weekend captured and demonstrated these things beautifully, so beautifully.

More about that in the next post!

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Mathias Poulsen

I think a playful mindset is essential for us to live better lives together. I organise the CounterPlay Festival to cultivate a #playfulsociety.

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