It seems that the majority of mainstream definitions of “play” identify an activity that is participatory, entertaining but essentially not serious. Play is something children do when they need to be diverted, perhaps so adults can get on with the serious business of life. “Why don’t you go off and play now,” usually signifies that it’s time to break off communication.
But, as any psychologist knows, play is something else too, something with a serious purpose if not a serious performance. At El Barrilete yesterday we saw a show put on by Performers without Borders (PwB), a small charitable NGO which sends out groups of circus performers to Nicaragua to teach children circus skills. The group also goes to Los Quinchos and elsewhere. The group works with the children with a view to developing a show of their own. As the children learn to play and cooperate together, you can watch their confidence growing, developing through play. We saw the same thing two years ago at Los Quinchos after a visit from PwB there.
Play is a healing activity par excellence. When you have looked into the eyes of a damaged six year old child, eyes deadened with anxiety and fear, and then seen the same child two years later, animated, laughing and full of playfulness, the value of “play” is evident. I’ve seen the same effect in asylum seekers, young men traumatised by months long treks across a hostile European countries. A cricket bat, a ball and a bumpy field was all it took to bring out the smiles again.
In the developed world we take “play” for granted. But think of the kids in Nicaragua or the asylum seekers in France before you write off the act of playing as mere diversion. Play is at the heart of our humanity, at the heart of childhood learning and at the heart of healing.