A hungry, 1200 lb polar bear was headed straight for a sled dog. The dog’s owner thought the dog would be the bear’s lunch. But he didn’t run away or fight – the dog offered to play. It wagged its tail, leaned forward (like downward-facing-dog in yoga), and didn’t bare its teeth. The bear responded in kind, coming sideways instead of attacking straight, looking sideways instead of staring aggressively. And the two animals began to play. They romped and rolled, took breaks resting on their backs, hugged and wrestled some more. In fact, the bear came back every day for a week, until the ice thickened enough for him to go hunting. (Story from Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul by Stuart Brown, M.D.)
I love this story. Here’s an animal that hasn’t eaten in months – and he plays instead of hunting. Play, it seems, is as important to our survival as food.
In my research about play I came across some people who want to play with pigs. Apparently, pigs are very smart and get bored easily. Once they get bored they chew on each others ears and tails. The European Union has issued rules that pigs need enrichment in their pens to help them not be bored. But the enrichment is usually something like a piece of rope on a chain and they figure it out pretty quickly.
Enter the people at playingwithpigs.nl. They tried to find something that would engage pigs and give people a way to interact with them. They explored things pigs might like, and discovered that they respond to spots of light. They started prototyping a game where spots of color appear on a wall in the pen when someone with an ipad starts a game. The pig and the human have to coordinate movements of the light to bring it to a triangle, where firework-type lights go off as a reward. The pigs enjoy it, it’s different every time, and it gives people a way to interact with these intelligent animals, even when they are far away.
My immediate thought was that this could be expanded for other animals. How often have you seen zoo animals that look bored to tears? I saw a chimp one time spit out something chewed up and icky (vomit? squished banana? I couldn’t tell) then eat it again, then spit it out again, then eat it again… How bored do you have to be to do that? What if there were a way for chimps, elephants, and other smart, bored animals to interact more with humans? It would give them a chance to play, which would relieve some boredom. It would give people a chance to play with them, which gives us a chance to create more emotional bonds with them. How cool would that be! Even if it’s just trained volunteers who operate the controls, it would still give all of us a better connection to and understanding of these animals.
So I put it out to the people of the world (or at least the two of you following my blog) to help the people trying to play with pigs, find ways to play with other animals, and increase the connection and understanding and fun we all can have with animals.
I have a friend who is living in a co-housing situation, two families in one house. She was concerned that the other family was suppressing irritations and not talking about them. She asked me if I had any ideas, maybe any games, which could help them communicate better.
Well, I thought for a minute, and said I don’t think there is any one game you can play to improve communication, since communication is trust-based. The best way to improve trust is to create a space that is safe for everyone, where everyone can show up fully, and enjoy each other. Even better if it can create a sense of being part of something larger than oneself, part of a household instead of a family or individual. I suggested that she try to set up regular play dates or even household dinners where they can play games over dinner. They could play “One of these things is not like the others” by picking four random words and explaining why one was different (gets people to think creatively about how things are or are not linked). They could pick three random words and create a story using the words – even the kids can get into that. They could tell stories about their days or their lives. Or they could all play Banangrams or Scattergories or quadruple solitaire, or anything else that created a shared and fun space. Once spaces like that become part of the life of the household, it makes it easier for everyone to bring up subjects that are a little more difficult. It gives people a sense that the household is resilient enough to survive being challenged, and that everyone can be all of who they are without having to hold parts back.
She thought this was a great idea, but as far as I know hasn’t implemented any of these games. I expect it’s hard to introduce new ideas like that to the other family, just as it’s difficult to talk about irritations. There’s a risk of being rejected or laughed at. There are logistical issues to work out. There are multi-generational interest and ability differentials. I find it can be hard in my own household to get everyone’s nose out of their own reading or electronic media to have a conversation. I believe in the benefits of playing together as a family or household, and will keep trying to incorporate these ideas into my own household. Maybe my friend can start with stories from three words, and see if it grows from there. Or Story Cubes, or Trivia cards, or anything else that can start a conversation and connection. How would you start playing together in your household?
I was looking out my window the other day and saw three young squirrels, smaller than their mama, in my yard. We get new squirrels every year, and as long as they don’t nest in the building they’re very cute. But this time I saw some very odd behavior. One squirrel ran part way up the fence, then jumped back down to the ground. Another rushed at a long, long, thin leaf on a bush, grabbed it, and flipped upside down. I thought at first he expected it would be strong enough to climb on and was surprised, but then I saw him do it again and again. These young squirrels were playing! I’ve never seen their mama play. I saw the three of them again today, running back and forth along the fence, leaping to the tree, leaping from branch to branch, and back to the fence. It looked like they were enjoying their strong young bodies, enjoying the feel of movement, enjoying playing. I just grinned and grinned, watching them, wishing I could leap and run like that.
I’ve heard stories of other young animals playing. I’ll have to tell you the story of the polar bear some time. I find it interesting that the young of all animals seem to know how to play more than their elders. What is it about our experience of the world that makes us stop playing? Do we feel we have to conserve our energy in order to work for food and shelter? It’s ironic that play can leave us more energized, but we think we don’t have the energy for it. And interesting that animals might feel the same way. So it must be instinctual to conserve our energy, which means it’s not easy for adults to play.
It’s not easy for adults to learn to play. Play energizes us and makes us happy. We feel, on some deep, instinctual level, that we can’t afford to play. What opposites! And no wonder that people think play and work are opposites. When I talk to people about play at work, they think I mean play during breaks, then back to serious work again. It’s not easy for people to play. It’s not easy to think of play as part of work, as a way to energize work and energize ourselves during work. So, when I write about play at work, don’t feel guilty if you think you can’t do it. Don’t assume you can’t do it. You can, if you want to. If it seems worth your energy and time. And it’s not naturally easy!
I’m a play professional. I bring play and creativity and fun to everything I do. Just because. And I wanted a place to post all the neat things I’m learning about play and creativity as I explore this realm, and figure out how to bring play into the work place.
I really, passionately, believe that the work place needs play. Play can help with creativity and innovation (and doesn’t every company need some innovation to grow?), team building and collaboration, increased morale and decreased turn-over. (Mmmm, turnovers….)
I also think it’s worth exploring the world of play just to see how grown-ups can join in the excitement and fun and flow that children experience. Just to make our own lives more enjoyable, more energized, more connected (sorry, I couldn’t find an “e” word that means “connected”).
So, welcome, and have a fun and playful day!