Beyond Love and Work: Why Adults Need to Play
PrefaceThat day -- a sunny June day in Cleveland, I would guess -- remains in my mind. It is never lost. An epiphany, perhaps. A great day of play. And as an adult, I have played that way at my best, too. I've sorted out children's behaviors, and sorted out their miseries and traumas, and sorted out their symptoms and the possible ways to treat them. Sometimes when it's complicated, I've put everything on a great big chart -- about as big, the way I remember it now, as that assortment of post-wedding-day bottle caps. Sometimes I've had to put it all into a computer because the whole business is too huge and ungainly to set up in any kind of backyard. But that grand day is still thd account of theplay of his eighteen-month-old grandson). Even though he wrote extensively about the psychology of art, for example, Freud seemed uninterested in the playfulness of the people who produced this art. And since Freud drew his primary inspiration from what he perceived in his own psychology, he may have failed to recognize play as the powerful force it is.
Of the psychoanalytic generation after Freud, it was most notably the gifted writer and clinician Erik Erikson who emphasized play as crucial to a child's development. But Erikson did not consider play a necessary part of adult life. He chose not to expand upon Freud's two requirements for normal adulthood. ("We cannot improve on the professor's formula, " he wrote in "Childhood and Society" .) In fact, in 1972, Erikson remarked that grown-up play looks phony and forced: "The adult who is playing in a sphere set aside for 'play' is not comparable to a playing child; wherefore he often seems to be playing at playing."
Erikson believed that active play disappears as a person gets older. The lasting legacy of child's play is, rather, an adult attitude achieved by too few -- the mature quality of playfulness. In one of the later lectures of his life, given at the Harvard School of Government, Erikson recalled that Freud had expressed regret that adults generally lack what Freud called "die strahlende Intelligenz des Kindes" (the radiant intelligence of children). Erikson urged people to cultivate this radiant intelligence by being playful. From Erikson's point of view, playfulness was as essential to the institutional boardroom, the political cloakroom, the halls of government, as it was to the playground. But he did not show muchinterest in what adult play might consist of -- what he felt adult lives lacked was the quality, not the activity.
In my readings on play, I have not yet come across the explicit suggestion that play ought to be added to Freud's two-pronged equation or any other. But I have become convinced that play is crucial to successful, healthy adult living.
With this book, I attempt to bring play into our contemporary thinking about adult mental health. For those many people who hardly play at all, they might consider this writing a giant "how-to" book. For those readers who consistently play, I hope they will enjoy some insight into what they are already doing.
Whatever you are, dear reader -- and I'd guess you fall somewhere in the middle -- I hope you find some fun in looking into a subject almost as mysterious and beautiful as a soda-pop bottle cap is to a preschooler. Adult play is a subject not ordinarily encountered in psychology or in one's everyday reading. Yet it is a necessity to us all.
Copyright © 1999 by Lenore Terr, M.D.
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Revisiting the Lowest Rungs of the Play Ladder
Biological Reasons We Pick Certain Playgrounds
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