Play – An Essay

Professor Ralph Rowbottom

Play, play activity, human play, playing

In my paper A Philosophy for Living above I spoke at length about work. What then of the activity it is often contrasted with – play?  Although the two are regularly linked – the phrase ‘work-and-play’ easily trips off the tongue – that does not mean that the two are conventionally accorded equal status: far from it. Work is readily and frequently characterised as useful, character-building, godly. By contrast, play tends to be thought of as without real use, frivolous, lacking moral worth; as a human weakness to be tolerated; at best, as an activity necessary from time to time in order to relax the hard-worked organism and prepare it for a return, re-invigorated,  to the real business of life.

Lacking any special thought, this is how I myself have probably tended to view the activity in the past. However more recently I began to perceive that play might be viewed in quite a different way – as something of great value, and as important in its own way as either work or love in the creation of a good life.

Generally, by play here, I mean any activity done purely for the joy of it. In this it can be distinguished from anything  done for its contribution to some benefit above and beyond – maintaining health and survival perhaps, raising a family, pursuing a career or whatever (although in higher forms of play, quite hard work is often required in order that the greatest pleasure can eventuate). Seen thus, play can take a variety of forms.

Sensual Play

The most basic type of play is that to do with stimulating various of the senses for the simple pleasure thereby obtained –  what might be called deliberate sensual arousal. When in babyhood we are in pain or much agitated, we get release and joy from being held, caressed, or rocked. In later years, by getting someone to do some or all of these same things to us or for us, we recapture something of the same pleasure even when not subject to those specific torments. Similarly, in later years we can attain again by frequent acts of eating and drinking something of the pleasure and release that we first experienced in the earliest years by imbibing warm liquid, even at times when our hunger and thirst may now be minimal. Indeed, we discover that there are a huge range and variety of succulent foods and drinks to be had, each offering its own characteristic and different delight, regardless of absolute need.

Gradually, many other ways of deliberate sensual arousal become familiar, invoking various of the full range of the human senses. We discover the pleasure to be had from taking frequent baths or showers, far more often in fact than sheer hygiene may call for; from retiring to bed, even when not wishing for immediate sleep; from the touch and scent of fresh clothing and cool sheets; from repetitions of soothing sounds or stimulating rhythms; from the impression of rich colours and intriguing patterns. And not least of course, there is pleasure of the most intense kind to be found from sexual stimulation, a form of play when undertaken, as it most often is, without any thought or desire of initiating reproduction. In all these ways we can and do customarily arouse and play with sensual pleasure for its own sake, rather than with further results primarily or whatsoever in mind.

Nearly all forms of sensual pleasuring may be produced by the individual alone, should she or he so wish. Sometimes however, they are ensured with the help of another; originally by a mother-figure, but later and in more particular forms by masseurs or fine cooks,  for example,  or shared with a friend or lover, perhaps . It is difficult to maintain that there is, in regard of any particular form of sensual play, a right or wrong way to go about it: alone, or accompanied.

As in all human activities things can go awry of course. Harm can come from obsession or over-indulgence; the actions of a supposed helper or sharer may be insensitive or abusive. In the case of sexual interaction in particular, there must always be good reason to believe that both parties are of a suitable age and stage to engage in it, and that both are truly ready and willing to proceed. However, if constantly pursued in full-awareness, with full-mindfulness, sensual play can only add to that desirable thing: consciousness of  vivid existence; indeed, the more intense the level of experience achieved, the greater the feeling of being fully alive.

For many of us, though we are not necessarily aware of it, there may well have been in our up-bringing  a little puritan moralist implanted somewhere inside, who whispers that searches for sensual pleasure of certain kinds, or of maybe all kinds, are basically wrong, sinful. To which the liberating soul must stoutly reply ‘Such rubbish! All things being equal, and with due regard for others, what can possibly be wrong in getting all the pleasure we can in a life where, as we well know, there are likely to be no shortages of displeasures bourn down upon us!’

Playing at Performing

However, from the start, the infant will want something more active than sensual play as just described, something which involves a performance of some kind. At first, it will be little more than thrashing about the limbs, but soon there will be crawling, walking, running, climbing, manipulating sticks, balls and other objects. In time will follow games and sports, some alone, some together with, or in competition with others. Many people will enjoy undertaking artistic performance of some sort: playing musical instruments, playing parts in amateur dramatics, dancing, and so on (note the use in common practice here of the actual word playing).

All performances call in general for a complex combination of movement, perception, calculation, and judgement – an all-round exercise of the organism’s faculties. In sports the need for agile movement will be the most obvious element, nevertheless for success, good perception, calculation, and judgement will always be required as well. In sedentary games like bridge or chess the element of movement will, by contrast, be trivial. Playing a musical instrument or acting requires all these different elements of ability in roughly equal measures.

Naturally, as for sensual practices, not all performances are as pleasurable or well-judged as they should be. All too often they may become obsessive, habitual only, or half-hearted. But done well and sensibly, performance-play can not only provide great enjoyment, but help develop personal skill, judgement, and confidence.

Appreciative Play

Sometimes we get simple pleasure or joy not by undertaking performances ourselves, but by attentively watching  or listening to – actively appreciating that is – the sporting or artistic performances of talented others. Some gain pleasure in the deeper appreciation of life and the world that they live in, by pursuing – even at a price of some hard effort, and quite apart from any career-benefits – academic studies in things like literature, science, or philosophy. Short of this last, there is the widely-available pleasure and appreciation to be had by nearly all of us from simply reading, watching or listening to stories, dramas, factual accounts, and the like – something that humanity has enjoyed huddled round communal fires since time immemorial.    Here is ample opportunity for the play and development of the imagination, and for the growth of sympathetic understanding of the ways and predicaments of many other and different fellow-humans, past and present. Again, the more fully and sharply the appreciative activity is entered into the greater the rewards that follow.

Playing at Exploring

Closely allied to the pleasure of appreciation, is that that may be got from various kinds of exploration undertaken for its own sake. Most children when facing some new stretch of countryside love to explore all its fields, woods and pathways. Young or old, interest and pleasure may be won from exploration for its own sake of foreign countries and peoples, of different cultures and customs.  And in the sort of academic-study-for-pleasure  described above, freely-chosen explorations can add even more to the appreciation gained.

Creative Play

The spontaneous exercise of creativity represents perhaps, play in its highest form. By spontaneous creativity  I mean that which is entered into simply for the interest and pleasure of it, and hence something for which the word play is appropriate, rather than that which is broached in the pursuit of profession or with some higher project in mind; One is thinking for example of the activities of the many people  – amateurs, as they may be thought of – who feel impulses to write stories, or  paint pictures, or compose music, often enough without any clear idea of who, if any, might enjoy the finished product, let alone with any thought of how it might possibly benefit their careers or earn them money. Then there are the many others again who demonstrate their creative abilities in such familiar ways as the development of welcoming homes and beautiful gardens, doing fine embroidery or woodwork, producing elaborate meals for special occasions, designing touching memorial-ceremonies, and so on.

Here is play at the richest level: play that not only brings joy and pride of achievement to its performer but very often , considerable pleasure as well to those who contemplate, consume, or employ (as the case may be) the results.


I have suggested that each and all of these things – engaging in the deliberate arousal and exercise of our different senses; practising various kinds of personal performance; exploring and coming to keener appreciation of the many different parts, peoples, histories and cultures of our world; creating new things, ideas, and occasions – when done for their own sakes as they so often are, may be appropriately described as engaging in different sorts of play.

What then is the common thread that links them together? Surely, it is that all in some way serve to enhance the basic quality of living – the sense of being alive, aware, and capable. Of course, there are many activities in which we engage other than play – pursuing a career, raising a family, for example – which may produce something of the same effect, even though that is not their primary purpose. But in play, it is the primary purpose. Play is directly concerned with enhancing the quality of living in some way; just that and that alone: a quintessentially human pursuit (for all those lucky enough to have the opportunity and means to engage in it) that leaves aside for the while all the pressing requirements of survival and reproduction.

When properly undertaken then, play brings us joy, helps in general to deepen the quality of our existence, and in its various forms, develops our skills, confidence, imagination, invention, and sympathetic understanding of others. It has to be recognised as a very important part of life, and should never be denigrated or undervalued.

Bath, England, November 2017

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