I remember as a small child being taught by my grandmother how to play with a cat. She explained that it wasn’t about winning, that if the cat couldn’t get the string the cat would get bored and not want to play. I think this was my first explicit lesson in why cooperation is better than competition.
There isn’t much fun to be had in winning against a cat. In learning to cooperate in this kind of play, I learned how to get the most delight out of a bit of string.
Looking back I note that it was one of the few instances of an adult explaining to me what the rules were for a specific sort of playing. As a child, I struggled with playing, which caused me a lot of social problems at school. I had no idea how any of it was supposed to work. I wanted to explore and experiment, and to learn how to do things. I liked imagining stuff, but the kind of communal imaginative role play games that children go in for made no sense to me.
When my son was a child, I got to revisit all of this. I still had no idea how to make certain kinds of play happen. Coming to it as an adult and a parent turned out to be as bewildering and uncomfortable as it had been as a child, only with extra layers of responsibility.
It may seem like an odd thing for a writer to feel, but as a child I did not want to play pretend games. As a teen playing role play games, where the rules are clearly defined, I was comfortable enough. I don’t think unstructured pretend play is actually that unstructured, it’s just that the rules are never explicit, and are intertwined with social standing and confidence. Some children are allowed to make the rules of the game, and change the rules of the game at will. Some are not. I was always in that second category with little grasp of how this first group got its power.
Writing is not like a make believe game. I get to make the rules. Even when I’m collaborating, I get a vote on how things work. It’s not like school where you can be stuck, day after day with people who will punish you – socially or physically – if you don’t play the games the way they want. These days I can at least vote with my feet if I need to.
How we play, who is allowed to play, who decides on the game – these things are all socially informed. How much of that do we learn unconsciously from our environments? Or in my case, fail to learn. We assume that play itself is intrinsic to children, but much of it did not come naturally to me and I doubt I am alone. How we play is part of how we learn, and this all has huge implications.