Child’s Play

Capture the flag, hunting for Easter eggs, Marco-Polo in the pool, running up and down the soccer field; all fond memories from my childhood. As a child, I played. This statement is quite easy to accept for most: kids play. Now as an adult I run, do yoga, lift weights, swim; am I still at play? Due to recently reading Bernard Suits’ Words on Play, Clifford Geertz’s Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight and Heather Reid’s Sport and Play I intend to look further at my life as a child and now as an adult and question when did the child’s play turn into work?

They're at play!
They’re at play!

Reid’s work in Sport and Play presents a set of 5 characteristics of play: voluntary, extraordinary, autotelic, fun, and absorbing. Thinking back to the activities that I engaged in as a child I can see that they all had these characteristics in common. I was voluntarily choosing to run around on the soccer pitch, there was a sense of freedom in being able to choose what sport I got to play. Competing in capture the flag contests were an extraordinary part of my childhood because it was the end-all activities for the group of neighborhood kids, it was what we looked forward to after school, it was a serious matter that held an increased level of value. Perhaps the most autotelic activity that I can think of from my childhood would be dressing up dolls; there was no other reason that I chose to do this activity, I simply wanted to dress up my dolls. All these activities that I’ve referenced fit the bill of being fun and absorbing as well. But now compare those activities I did as a child with activities done as an adult, it can typically be said that when I go to the gym or go for a swim I am voluntarily choosing to do these things, I am always free to quit the activity. Furthermore, I have fun sweating it out in the gym and physiologically my body is experiencing an enjoyable reaction. The autotelicity of working out can get a bit dicey, but can’t I say that today I voluntarily choose to go for a run for the sake of going for a run? Sure I can, it’s about how I approach the activity and my internal attitude and desire to engage rather than a physical necessity or a moral duty. It’s hard to accept that running can be done just for the sake of running and not because of the extrinsic rewards associated with it. Even still, autotelicity can’t be fully disregarded. In addition, I hold a high level of value for physical activity, I approach my workouts with seriousness;they are absorbing and something that I re-allocate my time to, from an instrumental activity such as studying or being at work. And according to Bernard Suits this is a crucial part of defining play. 

This is fun right?
This is fun right?

One thing that I’ve found in reading about the philosophy of sport on play is that a large part of determining whether someone is at play is the internal attitude and intrinsic approach a person takes when engaging in such activity. In researching this topic I came across Schimd’s article that examines the characteristics of play and discusses a lot about the intrinsic value of play. What determines if something is intrinsically valuable? Thinking about my own workouts I compare them to the play I did as a child and something doesn’t quite add up, there’s a difference in my internal approach to working out. While working out has the 5 characteristics of play as defined by Reid and even by Suits I hesitate to call it play. So I decided to look a little harder and try to find out what other research and informational sources say.

In A Pluralist Conception of Play by Randolph Feezell quotes Stuart Brown saying, “Sometimes running is play, and sometimes it is not. What is the difference between the two? It really depends on the emotions experienced by the runner. Play is a state of mind, rather than an activity”

A reallocation of time from an instrumental activity
A reallocation of time from an instrumental activity

So then it depends on how I approach my workout, if I am voluntarily choosing to reallocate my time from an instrumental activity to something that is absorbing, fun, extraordinary and autotelic in which I have a positive internal attitude towards then I am at play. The positive internal attitude that I develop is largely based off of the phenomenology of my past experience. And as Geertz would argue, “deep play is something in which the stakes are so high that it is, from a utilitarian standpoint, irrational for men to engage in it at all”. To some the extrinsic act of running a marathon is absurd but to me, it is extraordinary, it is something that I use to learn more about the story of myself; just as the cockfight is “a story [the Balinese] tell themselves about themselves.”

In conclusion, in reading play presented by philosophers of sport I have been challenged to look deeper into my own life and question what I am doing and as a student of kinesiology I crave to know more about physical activity in a different sense, one that I have never thought of. Mechanically and physiologically I have studied what makes the body move, but now I have been able to take it a step further and ask, is that movement play? Peter Gray’s article The Value of Play I: The Definition of Play Gives Insights in Psychology Today makes a statement that I feel accurately sums up what I have found on this topic, “play is not necessarily all-or-none. Play can blend with other motives and attitudes, in proportions ranging anywhere from 0% up to 100% percent play.”


Reid, Heather Lynne. “Sport and Play.” Introduction to the Philosophy of Sport. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2012. N. pag. Print.