Keeping the play space ‘open’ for creativity

playing blocksWhat we know

In order to be successful in developing creativity / creative learning, one has to ensure that the goal is holding the play-space open and not doing so for any extrinsic instrumental, goal-driven purpose or intention (see Amabile etc. on ‘how to kill creativity’). In other words the ‘goal’ has to be to hold the play space open and no more than this. This requires personally tolerating the uncertainty that the initiative or venture or learning won’t work – that it will be a disaster.

So how do we do this? Focus on play and playspace

Huizinga (1955:8-10) identifies 5 characteristics that play must have:

  1. Play is free, is in fact freedom.
  2. Play is not “ordinary” or “real” life.
  3. Play is distinct from “ordinary” life both as to locality and duration.
  4. Play creates order, is order. Play demands order absolute and supreme.
  5. Play is connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained from it

“Summing up the formal characteristic of play, we might call it a free activity standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life as being ‘not serious’ but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings that tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress the difference from the common world by disguise or other means.” (Huizinga, 1980:13)

“Man only plays when in the full meaning of the word he is a man, and he is only completely a man when he plays” (On the Aesthetic Education of Man — Schiller). It is interesting to reflect on the gendered nature of our project: are men or women ‘allowed to’ play more than each other? There is a lot to unpack here in terms of enduring Edwardian/Victorian values and the Protestant work ethic, for example.

Knill (who writes in a therapeutic context) says “The “doing as if” or the “we would now be…” in a play-space will always have temporal, spatial or situational aspects. These “spells” allow a distinction from the literal everyday space, time and situation and open up to an alternative world experience that offers unforeseeable and unpredictable options.” (p.88).

“Individuals’ or communities’ situations of change usually have ritual containers within which they are framed in space and time; we could say they have an “architecture”.” (Knill, p.76). Knill goes on to explain how some of the characteristics of these containers ‘depend on cultural traditions’, whilst others ‘seem to be universal’.

“When life lacks sense, when something or everything is missing or problems are closing in so much that no relief or solutions are in sight any more, one speaks of being stuck, treading on the same spot, being against a wall or cornered, having reached a dead-end, being at the limit or being in dire straits. These metaphors suggest limits and boundaries that restrict the possibilities of finding ease” (Knill, pp.77-78). There is an ‘agitated immobility’ or ‘lack of play range (Spielraum)’ (p.78).

Another writer, Turner, has written about the ‘liminality’ of play. Turner describes liminality as a “temporal interface” through which “meaning” can be generated “between established cultural subsystems, though meanings are then institutionalized and consolidated at the centers of such systems”(Turner, 41).  There are many different types of playspace in which such meaning is generated (and this will be highly context specific). It may also be, however, that there are some common features.

I have just been reading a paper by Statler et al (2009), which is titled ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’: Taking Play Seriously in Organizations’. I think it is wonderfully helpful in thinking through some of the challenges of the relationship between creativity and play (though creativity is not its primary focus). On the one hand, it reinforces my sense that play is the ‘ordered’ space in which creativity happens – and this occurs through opening up the possibility of first imagining ‘other’ ways of doing things, and then ‘discovering’ them (which is consistent with my CR definition of creativity).

On the other hand, the paper emphases the autotelic nature of play, meaning that as soon as you impose external goals on play it ceases to be play (and so the idea of getting people to play more so that they become more ‘creative’ is simply not going to work. There is here what I would refer to as the paradox of intentionality. Were we to make recommendations for positive action in the form of interventions at KCL that intentionally promote more play for more creativity, these would fail. However, finding ways of holding the playspace open for more people, more of the time and tolerating the uncertainty of what outcomes these would have is the way forward. Of course, this is a difficult message to convey.

[Reflections on literature by Nick Wilson]

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