Play as 'acting out one's capacity for the future'

As I write this, many of us are on lockdown due to COVID-19: the coronavirus that has been reported in most countries all over the world. This disease is still spreading quickly.

In the middle of all this, one of the most common phrases being used in the media about the future is this:

“It will get worse before it gets better.”

This phrase has been used in speeches, articles and memos during this crisis as well as nearly every recent viral outbreak: H1N1 swine flu, Ebola, and Zika. It’s a phrase that we also use when we talk about personal crises such as romantic or break-ups or the death of a loved one, in which case someone usually follows up by saying “time heals all wounds.”

When we don’t know whether we are healing or hurting or both, thinking about what lies ahead in the next few weeks/months/years can be so incredibly stressful that we emotionally shut down. The growing depression around us reminded me this week of a quote attributed to Brian Sutton-Smith, the scholar and teacher who write so brilliantly (and playfully) about play:

“The opposite of play is not work, it is depression.”

Quote attributed to Brian Sutton-Smith

Unless you have read Sutton-Smith’s The Ambiguity of Play, you probably don’t know that the often-quoted version of Sutton-Smith’s words is from a much longer passage. The reduced quote entered wide use after Dr. Stuart Brown’s 2008 Ted Talk on the value of play, in which he quoted Sutton-Smith’s “opposite of play” passage without attribution.

Subsequently, the quote went somewhat viral. It has been attributed on the internet to everyone from Stuart Brown to Brené Brown (silly humans) and has been written in all kinds of weird quote posts with inspirational backdrops of mountains and trees and people joyously jumping off short piers into lakes.

Granted: the shorter version is pithier, and I myself have used it to help reframe and jostle commonly held binaries of work vs play. But it is in the much longer passage, I think, that we can find some helpful food for thought during a time of growing lockdown, fear and depression. This is the full quote from the 1997 book The Ambiguity of Play:

What makes play adaptive is the “willful belief in acting out one’s capacity for the future.” What a beautiful phrase! Play is a feeling of purpose, a feeling that there is, as Stuart Lester put it, “more to be done.” Its opposite is vacillation (the inability to decide between actions), or perhaps a weakened locus of control (Rotter 1954): a lessened belief in our ability to control the outcome of events in our lives. Its opposite is depression.

Many of us at this moment feel little control at this moment. We have lost jobs. We have lost loved ones. We aren’t sure what we can and can’t do to protect our communities. We vacillate. For those of us with depression, the fear around COVID-19 will intensify feelings of sadness and isolation.

In a state of depression, we feel we can do less. Do not confuse “doing less” with #stayathome. Staying at home to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is not doing less. It is doing more. It is hope that we can get through this. It is inaction that produces great action.

Can it be helpful to think of staying at home as a way of doing more: as a form of play? At this moment of knowing only that it will get worse, I am finding the writing of adrienne maree brown particularly helpful. In a post this week, she suggested we “Sabbatical Our Quarantine.” She acknowledges that unlike a planned sabbatical, “quarantine can be a massive inconvenience, a shift from external to domestic work, a period of financial crisis, a period of familial and communal fear.” But perhaps there is a way to find moments of play in this time of fear:

relinquish knowing. you had other plans, your calendar was full, you thought you knew the future. but actually none of us know how all of this is going to play out… i hear grace lee boggs voice in my head asking ‘what time is it on the clock of the world?’”

Sabbatical Your Quarantine, adrienne maree brown

Yes: it will “get worse before it gets better.” But if we are “passionate”, “willful”, and willing to believe in the “play venture” as if “assured of one’s prospects,” we may be able to be confident in, and hopeful for, our capacity for the future: even if it is, as Sutton-Smith says, a “fantasy.”

What time is it on the clock of the world? Is it frivolous to think of play during crisis? Sutton-Smith, again, has advice for us, and with which I’ll close. Take care of yourself. Stay at home. Be tender with each other.

“Why do we study play? We study play because life is crap. Life is crap, and it’s full of pain and suffering, and the only thing that makes it worth living — the only thing that makes it possible to get up in the morning and go on living — is play.”

Brian Sutton-Smith, quoted in The New York Times

‘You’re Just Less Orderly’: A Letter to Stuart Lester

Stuart Lester was the recipient of an unwritten letter of gratitude I had been carrying in my thoughts. Today was Stuart’s funeral. I can’t give him that letter any more. So the following is my way of writing that letter.  And, as most letters of gratitude are, it is (uncomfortably) as much a letter about Stuart as it is a letter about me.

Stuart was a lecturer at the University of Gloucestershire, in a small but growing graduate program in Play and Playwork. I joined the program in 2012, after half-jokingly googling “Masters in Play,” thinking that there was no way that such a program existed. When I found that it did, I was soon on a plane from Boston to London, and then on a train to Gloucester, and then standing in a classroom with Stuart, who had asked me and my fellow graduate students to find a way to get from one door to another without ever touching the floor.

Serendipitously finding this graduate program was like going to Hogwarts. It was as if I found out that I wasn’t a weirdo: I WAS A WIZARD. Or, perhaps, a playworker. Here was a program that artfully drew from so many disciplines: evolutionary psychology, sociology, geography, and even critical theory. In their sampling of wide swaths of academic literature and life experience, Stuart, and his co-lecturer Wendy Russell, approached the study of play as they might approach a study of love: understanding that, as Gordon Sturrock writes, play is something “too big” to define. In this program, play was investigated in a beautiful, wholehearted and generous way: playfully.

In the following years of my participation in the program, I never met Stuart again in person. He existed in my life as a kind and disembodied voice on my computer who would often start a lecture by describing the weather at his home in Manchester. Stuart would then take his students on a wild journey through theory and practice that felt somehow punk in approach. Stuart elegantly crossed disciplinary lines like a kid vaulting  a barbed fence separating him from something wonderful and exciting. It seemed that he approached research from a ludic state: an optimism about what more can be done. 

Stuart by Mick use this one
Portrait of Stuart Lester by Mick Conway

In his writing and discussions, Stuart often spoke of non-representational theory, which focuses on the embodied moment: how stuff and bodies collide in time and space. My interactions with Stuart were, after that first meeting, never face to face but were still fully embodied in the collision of the moment: Stuart + computer + me + cats clambering onto the keyboard + fellow students + ideas + ideas + ideas.

In the weeks following Stuart’s death, I have been re-listening to those lectures, and it has reminded me of the degree to which Stuart radically shifted how I thought about play, space and children. In one lecture, Stuart addressed this shift.

“I would say that playing is a desire to see what more can be done,” Stuart said. “But it’s largely preconscious. It’s not a rational thought. It is a way of bodies moving restlessly with each other and with the materials in their environment.

“Now that’s quite a big shift in thinking that we have to make to get to that point. But having got to that point, it may change your perception of things.

“It may change the way that you start to look at children’s play. And we start to become not so much focused on the type of play, or classifying it as ‘is this play, is it not play’ but more about looking at the ways that bodies, materials, symbols, histories and so on combine to produce that particular moment.”

In another lecture, Stuart continues this train of thought, talking about how any particular moment as a collection of bodies, each body bringing its history and own trajectory into that moment.

“They all have a future time, a way of moving forward and going on,” Stuart said. “Bodies are in a continuous state of going on.”

It is strange listening to Stuart’s voice knowing that his voice is no longer “embodied” somewhere, in a literal sense. But this idea of bodies going on, spoken in Stuart’s own voice, recalibrates me as I feel sad that Stuart is no longer living. It reminds me of Aaron Freeman’s “eulogy from a physicist.” Freeman says that it could be some comfort to the bereaved that, actually, the energy represented by our bodily form does not disappear:

“According to the law of the conservation of energy, not a bit of you is gone,” Freeman writes. “You’re just less orderly.”

Less orderly: now that’s something Stuart– a rule breaker, and a bit of a quantum physics geek– would have liked. Stuart was a brilliant and rigorous academic, and was brilliant in part because he knew the rules and when to break them. He could talk about poop and critical theory in the same sentence. He could shoot the shit without a trace of bullshit, and talk about children’s play in a way that never lost sight of the child. I’m not sure what Stuart would have thought about this metaphor, but I think he wrote and taught as a playworker: as if he writing from a perch near the play of children, very very present, writing with authority but without being authoritative.

I owe Stuart a great debt because Stuart was my playworker. He was kind; he was present; he was respectful. His tutoring changed my perception of things. As we and my fellow students discussed children and play in so many course modules, it felt that he was not teacher and I student but rather we were teacher-students and student-teachers, journeying together. He was humble and optimistic that each day would bring something new to learn.

I’m not sure Stuart knew this, but it is in large part due to Stuart’s unsettling effect on me that I moved across the country to a new job in a new place. Still in the long distance graduate program, I began working at The New Children’s Museum with a group of coworkers who staffed exhibition spaces. Over the course of several years, under Wendy and Stuart’s mentorship, I began introducing playwork to the practice of this group. Stuart and Wendy had been my playworkers, and now I could be playworker to this group: playfully figuring out whether this practice could take hold in a children’s museum. Today, eight “Museum Playworkers” work in New Children’s Museum spaces, gathering each day for reflection and sharing. We are student-teachers and teacher-students, learning from each other and our space. We are in a continuous state of going-on.

Just a week before Stuart died, more than five years after I first made that trip to England, a few colleagues and I facilitated a session called “Playworking the Children’s Museum” at the Association of Children’s Museums conference. People from children’s museums all over the world approached us after the session, eager to learn more. Stuart and Wendy gave me a gift: this thing called playwork. It is a gift that gets bigger the more you give it. Thousands and thousands of miles from Manchester, there are now playworkers who, perhaps, might give children (and each other) the love, respect, and presence that Stuart gave me and all his students.

Writing this today, far away from Stuart’s funeral, is complicated. I wish I could have told Stuart all of this, instead of holding on to this debt of gratitude, allowing it to collect interest while I tried to adequately express it. Letters of gratitude are, after all, love letters: love for the person we wish to thank, and love for the person we have become.

I find some comfort in thinking that the letter I write to Stuart now is not so different than the letter I would have written to him weeks ago, before I learned of his passing. So much has changed, and yet so little has changed. His ideas are still here. His way of seeing the best in people is not gone. His words– recorded and punctuated by encouragement– still challenge us to think differently and to reframe long-held assumptions about children and play and space. I am not gone, nor is Iyari or Catherine or Jesse or Hannah or Jill or Amber or Diana or Suzie or Leah or Jaclyn or any of the children these playworkers work with everyday at the museum. All of that energy is still here.

Stuart is still here. He is just less orderly. And I think Stuart would be comfortable with that. 

Everyday I’m Shuffling, Shuffling

I have been thinking about the words “shuffle” and “shuffling” in relation to play practice and production of space. The word “shuffle” can mean a clumsy, plodding step (“just shuffling along”); the act of pushing gradually (“let’s see if we can shuffle this along”); or a deliberate method of injecting chance and disrupting order (“shuffling the cards”).

So, of course, I got the song “Party Rock” stuck in my head on repeat (though on shuffle would be more appropriate). In the LMFAO music video, dancers move through city streets, transforming the space with their bodies. Every minute or so, the frenetic beat breaks and one phrase briefly stands alone: “Everyday I’m shuffling, shuffling.”

It seems that De Certeau’s description of the city as “an immense social experience of lacking a place” fits the “everyday shuffle” of the video’s city streets:

“To walk is to lack a place. It is the indefinite process of being absent and in search of a proper. The moving about that the city multiplies and concentrates makes the city itself an immense social experience of lacking a place- an experience that is, to be sure, broken up into countless tiny deportations (displacements and walks), compensated for by the relationships and intersections of these exoduses that intertwine and create an urban fabric, and placed under the sign of what ought to be, ultimately, the place but is only a name, the City. The identity furnished by this place is all the more symbolic (named) because, in spite of the inequality of its citizens’ positions and profits, there is only a pullulation of passer-by, a network of residences temporarily appropriated by pedestrian traffic, a shuffling among pretenses of the proper, a universe of rented spaces haunted by a nowhere or by dreamed-of places.”

(De Certeau 1984: 103)

13 Photos that Show How Fun Museums Could Be

After last night’s Art After Dark event at the Honolulu Art Museum, it’s going to be hard for me to visit an art museum when it is NOT Halloween. What if every visit to an art museum was like this?

Greek in Hawaii

Adjusting a luxurious blue toga in front of an art deco landscape.


Wonder Woman checks a text in the Mediterranean courtyard.

Beyond the mask

The Onryo from The Grudge checks out her competition while Jordan Tootoo looks on. 


 Hazmat or Spongebob? 


I vaaaaant to read your well-written and pithy wall didactics.

Construction worker

Even construction workers love hand-carved, hand-painted Bodhisatvas!  [That guy in the Hawaiian shirt didn’t know it was costume night. Here in Hawaii, they just call them “shirts.”]

Charlie Brown

Good grief! All this wood makes Charlie Brown uncomfortable!

King of Sheba

Examination of the colonial bias represented in a Eugene Savage mural causes the Bathrobe Sheik to question his own history of cultural representation.

White robe

Sadly, one of the only safe spaces to wear your own cultural clothing evocative of the Middle East is on Halloween at an art museum. While looking at Chinese scroll paintings. Can I get a James Clifford Pure Products Go Crazy what? 


“I told you, I’m near the restrooms on the west wing! No, not the gallery with the scrolls. The one with the pre-contact etchings!”


Krishna, Radha and… THE DEVIL.


Ghosting, banana style. But I think for this guy, it’s called splitting.

The Great Pumpkin

And finally, the girl with the pumpkin everything.

“The Future is a Quickening of What Now Is”


 “Art celebrates with peculiar intensity the moments in which the past reinforces the present and which the future is a quickening of what now is.”

At work, we’re working with a fantastic group of artists to develop a new exhibition. I’m very grateful to be working with such a wonderfully playful group. Simultaneously, I’m re-reading John Dewey’s Art as Experience, and every page feeds me new ideas. I’ve latched on to this idea, in particular:

“To be truly artistic, a work must also be esthetic—that is, framed for enjoyed receptive perception. Constant observation is, of course, necessary for the maker while he is producing. But if his perception is not also esthetic in nature, it is a colorless and cold recognition of what has been done, used as a stimulus to the next step in a process that is essentially meaningless. The esthetic experience is thus seen to be inherently connected with the experience of making… For to perceive, a beholder must create his own experience. And his creation must include relations comparable to those which the original producer underwent. They are not the same in any literal sense. But with the perceiver, as with the artist, there must be an ordering of the elements of the whole that is in form, although not in details, the same as the process of organization the creator of the work consciously experienced.”(Dewey 1934: 54)

I think it’s safe to say that my coworkers and our partner artists are having fun. I hope that our “hushed reverberations” will ring through to the finished works.

More inspiration from Dewey as we move forward:

“To the being fully alive, the future is not ominous but a promise; it surrounds the present as a halo. It consists of possibilities that are felt as a possession of what is now and here. In life that is truly life, everything overlaps and merges… Only when the past ceases to trouble and anticipations of the future are not perturbing is a being wholly united with his environment and therefore fully alive. Art celebrates with peculiar intensity the moments in which the past reinforces the present and which the future is a quickening of what now is.”


Palms and Pop Ups

“Today, we have a real playworker among us,” San Diego Civic Innovation Lab  Strategist for Public Space and Ecology Ilisa Goldman said as I and five adult volunteers at the Pop Up Nature Play event in Balboa Park circled for a pre-play briefing. Standing among somewhat orderly piles of palm fronds, “tree cookies,” bamboo and pinecones, I realized that Ilisa was the first person (well, other than me) who had called me a “playworker” since I began the graduate program in Play and Playwork at the University of Gloucestershire in 2012. In the United States, a place where  the term “playworker” is as exotic a word as “unicorn,” being called a playworker felt a bit exhilarating. And then a little strange. And then I started questioning myself. Am I a playworker? Do I get to call myself that? Do I have to earn more merit badges before I can officially say that I am one of this mystical order of Peter Pan players?

And then I was reminded of something someone told me at a party recently. He said that after he moved to California from Kansas, he noticed something. In California, people introduce themselves not by what they do for a living (“I’m a waiter”) but by what they aspire to be (“I’m a transcendentalist meditation specialist who dabbles in reiki and acts.”) So, in California,where I, luckily, do make a living playfully designing transformable spaces for kids,  I can fully embrace my new identity:

I am a playworker.


So now that we got that out of the way, here’s the play-by-play of the Pop Up Nature Play experiment in the park:

1. MATERIALS (lovingly gathered by Ilisa Goldman):

IMG_0449 IMG_0450 Tree "cookies"IMG_0458IMG_0465IMG_0457

Before (well, I guess right at the beginning– this kid and her little brother came to the event last year and were chomping at the bit to get started again):


And after (some of my favorite images):

IMG_0591 IMG_0557 IMG_0533 IMG_0507 IMG_0493 IMG_0491 IMG_0467 IMG_0484 IMG_0468 IMG_0471 IMG_0472

One of the funny realizations of the day was this: since I have been a playworker, I have not played with the materials of my California childhood. It brought back lots of memories of playing with California pepper branches, eucalyptus, and palms. The smell. The razor-tipped fronds. The shagginess. This is my terroir. What better place to become a fully realized playworker than in the land of my first playing?


Boston Biking (and Departing)


After ten wonderful years of playmaking and art-instigating in Boston, I’m moving to San Diego!

In late October, I will start work as Manager of Exhibition Development at the New Children’s Museum: an innovative space that encourages creativity and critical thinking through transformative experiences with contemporary art. Though I am sad to say goodbye to the city that I love, I couldn’t be more excited about this new opportunity.

As part of my swan song, the very talented photographer and blogger Nathaniel Fink (of Cycle Style Boston) spent some time with me and my trusty Altra bike during Circle the City’s Open Streets festival. Nathaniel and I biked up and down Blue Hill Ave, which, for one day, became a pedestrian pathway between Dudley Street and Grove Hall. Along the way, we happened upon many of my friends and colleagues, from the Food Project, Boston Cyclist’s Union, Boston Children’s Museum, the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative and more. It was an ideal way to see “my people” and to reflect on my transition and my new challenge.

For photos of the day and a nice Q & A, check out Cycle Style Boston here. And stay tuned for new dispatches from America’s Finest City!

Reflections on the Vanguard

Photo by Quardean Lewis-Allen, Made in Brownsville
Photo by Quardean Lewis-Allen, Made in Brownsville

Last Tuesday, the 40 members of the Next City Vanguard 2013 class introduced themselves through the telling of 60-second stories. They talked about bringing mass transit to Honolulu. They shared vignettes about using street art as transformative youth development. They touched on the challenges of working in cities where you want to walk, but you’re not sure where the sidewalk will suddenly disappear; of training new urban leaders in Cairo; of managing the recovery of a subway system after Hurricane Sandy.

As I listened to this quilt of stories (and eventually told my own), I envisioned an interactive map of North America. 28 cities. 40 bright lights. These are urban advocates who are doing good, humble work, from Vancouver, British Columbia to New Iberia, Lousiana. Listening to 40 urbanists, I felt a bounciness, a sense of possibility, a buoyed feeling that stuff is going right in our cities more than it is going wrong.

However, if you really want a booster shot of immunity from urban despair, look deeper to investigate the core unifying characteristics of the Vanguards: our approach.

Whereas many conferences mush into a maelstrom of competing self-promotion, the folks at this convening were focused on the what-if; the what-could-be; the let’s-try-it-and-see-what-happens. On the plane back to Boston, I realized that through three days of the Vanguard convening, I didn’t hear one mucky, swampy complaint session. Not one.

The focus was action and straight-up hope. Sure, you could chalk this hopefulness up to the idealism of age. We’re all under 40, we believe in the power of cities, and we are willing to seek out a Cleveland karaoke bar on a weeknight. But it’s not about age. Let’s face it: many of of us in this group are in our 30s and have more than ten years of management experience. We have heard shouts of “more creativity! more innovation!” transformed into double-talk via actual decision-making. One Vanguard class member told the story of how she once overheard someone say that an idea (for an innovation competition, believe it or not) was “too new.” Via chronic naysaying, we could have lost our idealism a long time ago.

But we haven’t.

George Bernard Shaw wrote, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” Perhaps we don’t lose our idealism because we grow old; we grow old because we lose our idealism. As I head back into my work making cities better through playful opportunities, I’m going to remember this– and work to spread the feeling.

People I Love

Kenny Bailey

Kenny Bailey is a social innovation rockstar. Many people in Boston know this, but apparently now it’s official: BOLD has added Kenny to its list of SIRs (Social Innovation Rockstars):


What I love about Kenny, in addition to his maniacal laugh, is his “let’s just do it” attitude. At the end of the day, that’s a main element of his magic.  If somebody comes to Kenny with a big, impactful idea, Kenny is ready to say yes, yes, yes. The next thing you know, you’re at a table with other magical people sharing food and ideas and making stuff happen.

If you don’t know Kenny’s main gig, the Design Studio for Social Intervention, you should! Go here RIGHT NOW:



What did you learn today?

How to Design for Children

In the past four weeks, I have had the opportunity to facilitate two interesting learning experiences, both positioned as “how-to” sessions. My co-learners were:

  1. 32 adults who work as planners and strategists at creative agencies (at Planning-ness 2013), and
  2. Twelve 6th through 8th graders and three adults from the Brookwood K-8 School

To prepare for both, my collaborator Ben Durrell and I gathered some of our experiences under the title “How to Design for Children.” The title is a deliberate diversion. Like a laundromat that sheaths a spy agency, a straight-forward title acts as a “front.” It hides radical ideas in plain sight. And the big, simple secret that we shared in both presentations was this: adults cannot design “for” children before they find empathy for the experiences of children in an adult-managed world.

The learning sessions were not about communicating a step by step panacea for children’s design (we don’t have the “answers”), but rather about a group of people sharing their personal experiences with play, and then approaching some of our previously unaddressed assumptions.  Though we used the same slides to talk to both the (older) adults and the (younger) adults, the experience in both places was unique and weird and fun. They involved reading from Captain Underpants. There was some discussion of dirt and poop and hiding under the bed. In other words, you had to be there.

However, I and my collaborator Ben do have an (adult?) desire to share some stuff. I’ve summed up five of the characteristics that usually show up in my designs for a young audience. Some of them work for an older audience, too. The caveat is that they are no replacement for true reflection on one’s own experiences. If you check it out and have ideas to add/shift/etc, please let me know at megan [at] takeplayseriously [dot] org. If you were at Planningness or are still working on your board game at the Brookwood School (hang in there, students!) and want to continue the conversation, please contact me and Ben to keep the thinking going.

How to design for children

A few reflections

When I facilitate teaching experiences such as the ones above, my primary measure of success is simple: Did I gain empathy for someone else’s experience?

In this sense, I’m a fierce Freirean. I believe that knowledge “emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.” (Freire 1993: 72) I have been at my best as a teacher when I did not see myself as teacher, but, rather, as co-learner questing with other humans. Human hope lives in those moments of praxis.

I recently read an interview between Paulo Freire and Seymour Papert. Papert recalls that he used to have a cartoon on his wall that features a little girl who approaches her teacher after class to ask “What did I learn today?” The teacher says, “That’s a funny question. Why do you ask that?” The girl says “When I get home, Daddy will ask me, ‘What did you learn today?’ and I never know what to say.” Papert reflects:

 And that what we’re really trying to do in education in small children is to…you can say it all sorts of ways: give them more consciousness of the process, more control, or allow them to throw themselves into it. But however you describe it, it’s the opposite of them wanting to ask …having to ask … the teacher, “What did I learn today?”

When you’ve learned something in the way that I learn during teaching, you feel it more than you know it. For me, teaching is a bit like yoga. At the end of a yoga session, you stop and notice how your body might feel different. Looser. Tighter. Whatever.  After engaging in discussion like we did at Planningness and with the kids from Brookwood, I feel a subtle difference in understanding. And I hope my co-learners do, too.