Play, people!

Mathias Maurer

Dear Reader,

Raphael has disappeared. I call. No answer. Silence. Where is he? I begin to look for him. In his room, in the house, the cellar, in the street ... Slight panic. Raphael has gone. And indeed: when I find Raphael behind the cupboard he is absent – it is as if he is in a different place, another time. The two-year-old is playing, intensively and oblivious to everything around him. His cheeks are glowing, the tip of his tongue sticks out of his half open mouth. He has discovered the sewing box. Around him lie scissors, needles, cotton reels, buttons ... His little fingers are trying hard to thread the cotton through the eye of the needle. Should I interrupt, correct or help him and thereby disrupt his play? I quietly withdraw. Half an hour later he calls for me. Proudly he presents his “work” – a button on a knitting needle. He has returned.

Playing is child’s play? Wrong. Albert Einstein said splitting atoms was child’s play compared to child’s play. He elevated play to the highest form of research. Even Karl Marx had to admit that just work and no play makes us stupid. As adults we have simply forgotten how as children we discovered ourselves and the world.

Play is life in full. Life may not be a game but in playful activity – be it of a sporting, artistic or thinking variety – we familiarise ourselves with it. In play we become ever new creators and put ourselves on the line. Play makes the impossible possible. The price is a new discovery or defeat, an embarrassing flop or a “Eureka” moment – but good players do not worry about that because they do not have any expectations, they play for the sake of playing because they feel fully human when they do.

Friedrich Schiller expressed it perfectly in his Aesthetic Letters in the famous words: “Human beings only play where they are human in the full meaning of the word, and they are only fully human where they play.” The cultural historian Johan Huizinga (1872-1945) considered the playing human being to be the source of all cultural systems. Play became serious as soon as playful behaviours were ritualised, “established” as rules, robbing play of its freedom through their mandatory character. The philosopher Herbert Marcuse made the predominance of “instrumental rationality” responsible for that. Only in play did human beings create the free space for their self-development in the face of all external constraints.

Raphael knows nothing of all that – but he plays for the sake of his freedom as a human being.

Mathias Maurer