In my last post, I got into the background and context of the recent CounterPlay Leeds event. Now it’s time to explore the central themes as they emerged through play.

Diversity of play

Play reminds us that diversity and ambiguity are not something to be avoided, but rather to be embraced and encouraged. Play can be meaningful and important for all of us because it can take on so many forms and only those playing can determine whether or not this or that form of play is meaningful. If we can learn to accept and understand this, well, maybe we can carry that knowledge and respect with us into all aspects of life.

During CounterPlay in Leeds, I saw this flourish. Nobody wanted to tell anyone that this or that was the right way to play, but lots of wildly different invitations presented themselves. We greeted each other playfully. We spend a long time decorating nametags that were pretty or silly or both. We transported colorful feathers by blowing them from hand to hand. We made so many funny noises and gestures. We played with recorded sound loops. We made the slimiest slime. We made beautiful woolen spider webs between trees. We “flocked” and jumped around. We made new “play-laws” for Leeds to encourage play in public. We dressed up in cardboard. We had a fierce “tug of war” outside.

All of this amounts to a wonderful demonstration of the diversity of play.


Play is a catalyst of imagination, because imagination is required to keep play evolving and moving in new, surprising directions. Imagination keeps play alive and vice versa.

Guided by Malcolm Hamilton of Mufti Games, we went out and explored the urban space around the museum, where we found some pretty sad by-laws telling us all the things we couldn’t do:

Enthused by play, we quickly we imagined a different world where by-laws became playlaws, and instead of telling you what you’re not allowed to do, we started listing stuff you had to do:

“Don’t walk on the cracks. Walk like a bird. Avoid the lava. Point to an owl. Shake hands with someone. Don’t slip on the banana skin. Walk backwards. Jump! Spin!”

When someone walked by, we invited them to play and cheered them on when they chose to participate. Many people did, often with a combination of surprise and joy. “What is this? Am I allowed to play here?”

Even this somewhat serious-looking guy, who turned out to get more involved than anyone else. Apparently, it was his birthday and our little silly intervention made his day.


I always insist that play shouldn’t be restricted to any one group in society (like, say, children), but should rather be expanded to include all of us. It doesn’t matter if we’re young or old, if we’re male of female or something else, if we’re physically strong or less so. None of that is of any consequence, because none of us should be forced to live a playless life.

I don’t know the age of any of the participants, and it didn’t matter one bit. There were a bunch of families with small kids, some of whom stayed for a very long time, so immersed in play that they apparently couldn’t leave. Sometimes we were playing alongside each other, sometimes everyone came together across generations in joyous silliness like this round of human bowling:


Playing with other people, we develop a shared interest in keeping the play alive and we have a shared responsibility for this. This brings to the fore a certain kind of generosity, where we care less about our personal needs and more about contributing to the shared experience. We stretch a little bit more, take a few additional steps towards the other, trying to do and be a little bit better for the greater good.

Drawing on Anthea Moys’ brilliant performance at CounterPlay ‘17, Ben Ross had us “flocking” all over the place and it was a beautiful:

It’s a simple “game”, inspired by flocking birds, where everyone follows the leader of the flock. Whenever the leader turns , the entire flock turns and whoever is in front becomes the new leader.

What’s remarkable about flocking is how quickly you start to feel like an (somewhat) cohesive organism, and you take it upon you to extend the experience. Generosity in action.


During the weekend, we kept coming back to the question of “permission”. How do we know if we have permission to play? Who can grant that permission? Is it ours for the taking? Maybe we can collectively, as a community, bestow the permission on each other?

While it might seem a trivial matter – playing is generally not prohibited – it actually appears to be holding us back more often than you’d think. We have grown accustomed to not playing and we need someone to renew our invitation.

This issue becomes even more evident when we don’t always know who owns . Due to what has been labelled “the insidious creep of pseudo-public space”, public space is longer always public, further blurring the actual ownership and the permissions we citizens might have. When some of the organisers started making woolen spider webs, a woman and her son joined them. It was only afterwards she learned that no official permission had been given, which made her quite surprised that we’d dare do it all.

We need to renegotiate the rules of engagement, reclaiming our permission to play in public!

In the next post, I’ll explore some of the actionable ideas that emerged during the weekend, so we can keep the playful spirit spreading.

The following two tabs change content below.

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.

Latest posts by Mathias Poulsen (see all)