Three ages of play: Doodles, poodles, apple strudels

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Why is play often seen as harder to justify as we get older?


Play
is both a luxury activity and an essential one.


Play
sets the imagination free. This is captured perfectly in 2014
cinematic masterpiece The Lego Movie – the purest depiction I’ve
seen of the joyous, light-speed leaps and bounds of the mind at
play.

To
play is to “engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation
rather than a serious or practical purpose,” my Dictionary
suggests.

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Play
is often seen as harder to justify as we age. What Homer Simpsons
dubs “stoopid reality” takes over. The serious or
practical purpose of making a living, of survival, has to come first.

Play
changes as we move through the three ages of man – childhood,
adulthood and old age – and it’s becoming ever more of a luxury
with each passing day.

Play
in childhood: How other worlds could be

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For
young children, the world is all play.

No-one
is going to tell young children to stop wasting their time playing
and do something productive instead, says Brian Eno in his
fascinating ramble-chat on Adam Buxton’s always-delightful podcast
last
week.

Eno
argues that imagination – and our ability to make what we imagine
become real – is what sets humans apart from other species on this
planet.

Play
is critical to how we develop, flex and use imagination, says Eno in
his 2015 BBC John Peel lecture:

“The
thing that humans are doing, especially young humans are doing, when
they play, is imagining. They’re learning to imagine. They’re
learning to think about how other worlds could be.”

Play
in adulthood: Doodles, poodles, apple strudels

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For
adults, play becomes much more of a luxury.

How
we play changes as we age, says Eno:

“Children
learn through play, but adults play through art.”

Eno
defines art as “art is everything that you don’t have to do”.
He elaborates on this idea:

“Symphonies,
perfume, sports cars, graffiti, needlepoint, monuments, tattoos,
slang, Ming vases, doodles, poodles, apple strudels, still life,
second life, bed knobs and boob jobs. All of those things are sort of
unnecessary in the sense that we could all survive without doing any
of them, but in fact we don’t. We all engage with them.”

But
our freedom to engage with art, with play, becomes ever more of a
luxury in adulthood.

In
his latest blog post – Pay to play – Neil Morrison
looks at how adults balance work and play. Neil offers a definition
of what play means to adults that isn’t far off Eno’s definition
of art:

“There
is work, then there is the other stuff. For the purpose of this
piece, let’s call that ‘play’. Play is everything else that you do
in your life, the hours that you use at your discretion (parents and
carers, I know it doesn’t always feel like this!) for things that
matter to you.”

Neil
writes that he was “brought up to believe that you couldn’t have
what you didn’t earn – you did without until that point. It is a
value that drives both my work and play, and the intersection between
the two.”

He
questions whether the harsh economic necessities of today mean that
this belief is now antiquated. As people are forced to devote ever
more of their time to just getting by, to surviving, play risks
becoming ever more of a luxurious indugence. Neil asks whether our
current versions of work and play risk being consigned to the past,
along with “career paths, pension schemes and security of
employment.”

Play
in old age: All those roles you played

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In
old age – at least in our current conception of old age – retirement
provides the luxury of free time and play for some. But harsh
economic reality will serve to make this version of old age all but
extinct in the coming decades.

“We
are entering the age of no retirement,” according to an
excellent investigative piece in The Guardian
last month.
This is down to the simple truth that “the population is getting
older and the welfare state can no longer keep up.”

Stepped
increases to the retirement age – designed to make provision of the
basic state pension sustainable – mean that by “the early 2060s,
people will still be working in their 70s, but according to research,
we will all need to keep working into our 80s if we want to enjoy the
same standard of retirement as our parents.”

The
version of old age that Neil Morrison’s – and therefore also my –
generation grew up with is going the way of the dodo, argues the
article’s author, Amelia Hill:

“I
tried explaining final-salary pensions to a 20-year-old recently.
They looked at me quizzically, as though I was telling them that I
had seen a unicorn. When that same 20-year-old, however, tries to
explain the traditional concept of retirement to their own children,
they might well be met with the same level of incomprehension.”

There
are five pillars of a successful retirement in this traditional
concept, says Hill. The first is “the ‘money bit,’” without
which the others are impossible. Next come having a social network,
having purpose and challenging one’s mind, and ongoing personal
development. “The fifth and final pillar is having fun.”

Having
fun in old age – being able to return to the freedom of play without
serious or practical purpose – is on the way to becoming the ultimate
luxury, one that will be unaffordable for the majority of us.

Hill
speaks to retired woman – Monica Hartwell of Minehead – who is able
to enjoy a full and fun life volunteering at the local theatre, film
society and museum. Hartwell says:

“The
joy of getting older is much greater self-confidence. It’s the loss
of angst about what people think of you: the size of your bum or
whether others are judging you correctly. It’s not an arrogance,
but you know who you are when you’re older and all those roles you
played to fit in when you were younger are irrelevant.”

For Hartwell, at least, the need to play a role has been replaced in old age by the joy of play.

The freedom of play is always there

As
children, play builds our imagination, and teaches us without our
realising how to deal with and create our world.

As
adults, pure play gives way to all the roles you play to make your
way in the world.

In
old age – if you are one of the lucky few – you might get the chance
to dive back into the luxury of pure play.

But
whether it’s through play or through art, your mind always has the
ability to access the limitless freedom of play of imagination.

Let
your mind wander today. Where will it take you?

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