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When College Students Play

Play is a conversation topic that leads us quickly to profess nostalgic words of adoration about our past engagements. Whether it was climbing trees, board games, or hide and go seek, we all like to assume that play is one thing we have in common. At its surface, play is a common thread through each child’s memory train but if you look much deeper, it is easy to understand that the definition and methods of play are likely to change from person to person. Play is, in fact, as diverse as the people participating.

Beyond the quick assertion that play is one thing that once bonded us together lies another common misconception about play. This misconception is the thought that play is restricted by boundaries and guidelines. Play is not bound by a handbook nor is play bound by a list of rules provided by an external party. Instead play is genuine and inherently satisfying. We know that play is diverse and we know that play is all but boundary-less. So, what happens when a group of college students experience play again in their early twenties? This is the exact experience of our first day in our Play and Playwork course.

I quickly noticed the overhanging age bound restrictions society places on play. In the very first ice-breaker activity, it was easy to see discomfort. The discomfort was different from that of a group of 7 year olds in that it was obviously attached to some time of expectation. The game of hot potato started out somewhat uncomfortable. However, by the end of the game the room was roaring with laughter. This demonstrates how play passes through multiple phases and often begins with some level of discomfort. While the discomfort was different than that of elementary aged children, I found it refreshing to see that as time went on the experience became more genuine and started to mirror the ways a young child would have experienced the activity. For me, this solidified the notion that play is not bound by age.

In the lecture portion of the class, my eyes were opened to the true depth of the diversity of the field of play. First, it was fascinating to me that while many people are interested in the field of play there is still an overarching skepticism as to it’s place as the focus of rhetorical conversation. Play has historically been a significant part of development for children. Second, I appreciated the consistent conversation about the lack of boundaries and definitions present in play. To focus play with a set of defining characteristics would in fact negate the exact purpose of play. This does walk a fine line. There is a not of irony in that in order to ensure play is not bound by boundaries, we have to use a set of guidelines. It is important that play is inherently enjoyable and intrinsically motivating. Most importantly, true play must be open ended. While play is diverse and lacking in true definitions, there are ways we can assess the strength in play and support young people in experience true play.

As we learned in the very first activity, play is a process. We are able to deduct a set of experiences people are likely to have as they experience play from start to finish. It is likely that a person experiencing true play will experience anticipation, surprise, pleasure, understanding, strength, and lastly poise. This process offered encouragement as I reflected on my history of play. It helped me look at the types of play I engaged in. If a step was nonexistent, it helped me ask “why?”. It was most likely because the type of play I was experiencing was bound by society.

I began to further believe that play has a place in research as we discussed the ways that play shapes the personality of adults. Not only does play physically shape the way children interact with the world around them, but play also offers opportunities for children to work on skills necessary for them to employ later in life. When I was young and would build forts with my cousins, it helped me learn cooperation and negotiation skills. When I designed and wrote a neighborhood news article with my next door neighbor, I learned to solve problems and express thoughts and feelings. Play not only has a strong hold on nearly every aspect of our childhood, but I am learning play also has a strong influence on us as adults.

The unrestrictive nature of play allows it to be one of the most freeing and imagination driven experiences in our lives. We saw that in the video of the two siblings who created world after world with a big box and things they found around the house. If restrictions were placed on us in our play, we would not be able turn a cardboard box into a spaceship. Beyond a source of imagination, play can be a source of creation and communication. Caine used the same materials used to make a spaceship in the first video to create an arcade. Uniquely, Caine’s arcade was heavily reliant on the element of interaction. While he enjoyed playing it himself, he saw his role as a supporting role of the play of others who wanted to participate. He used his imagination and unrestricted options to provide a venue for cooperative and interactive play.

In our final challenge of the day, we had the opportunity to quite simply play. With a plethora of random supplies and the inspiration of Caine’s arcade we broke through the anticipation and began playing. Each of us worked with classmates to create something completely unique and imagined. For some, simply creating their masterpiece was enough but for others using their creation and sharing it with others was the end goal. This exercise was bound only by time and we saw college students engage in true play. This exercise served a few purposes to me. First, I saw it as a reminder of what true play is. Second, it acted as a way to remind us that play is not bound by age and third, it helped me to understand that no matter how far disengaged you feel from play, play is always just a hop skip and a jump away.

Through the readings and through day one, I was consistently reminded of the diversity riddled through play. The methods of play, the venues of play, and the playing are all incredible diverse. This is because play is not restricted to a certain race, gender, socioeconomic status or capability. Anyone has the opportunity to experience true play in some form or another. Play exists for significant reasons through out our development. If we want to better understand play and its role in our development, we want the capacity to measure it. To measure play, however, is to act against the purpose of play and because of this, people are skeptical of it’s place in academia. In all of its diversity, the category of play remains a common thread that connects us all. It starts in childhood and begins shaping the way we as adults experience our world.

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