The New Self-Help

Play Is Dangerous. It’s Also Essential.

But the idea that we — and our children — are never really ‘safe’ is hard to live with

Book jacket cover for Savage Park by Amy Fusselman
Book jacket cover for Savage Park by Amy Fusselman

This story is part of The New Self-Help: 21 Books for a Better You in the 21st Century.

Play is not something that we do; it is something that we are. It is the state of consciousness that we are born with, and it gradually diminishes in power as we age, until, as adults, we generally find that we are able to enter and exit this state with ease only if we have practiced.

I started thinking about this, and how as adults we can integrate more play into our sense of selves, a few years ago, when my family and I traveled from New York City to Tokyo. The friend we were visiting introduced us to her favorite adventure playground. Not many foreigners knew about it; she and her kids had a nickname for it: Savage Park.

Its official name is Hanegi Playpark and at first glance, it’s a downward-sloping one-acre patch of dirt and trees. It smelled like smoke because there were three open fires. We stared at the dirt and trees and the structures that were woven around and between them, structures that were clearly not made in any place where safety surfacing had ever been a subject of serious discussion. This was possible because (as our boys would soon discover), the materials to make the structures — hammers, wood, saws, hole punchers, screwdrivers, nails, paint, brushes, and donated scraps of all kinds — were available at the playpark for everyone to use. I looked up at the trees. I was astonished to see that there were children in them.

My children loved Tokyo’s adventure playgrounds. One day, the boys spent a solid 90 minutes negotiating where and how to roll as many tires as possible into some old boats. Sitting there, watching them play, I thought how hungry my boys always seemed, in their play, for moments when their actions could take on real gravity, and how seldom in my parenting of them I took this hunger into consideration.

The playpark has everything in it, including nature in its beauty and treachery; including man-made spaces in their youthful heroism and then inevitable shabby disorder; including people; including fire; and including the possibility of death.

We stayed there as long as we could.

Play is serious business

It took me some time to realize what it was that I found so intoxicating about Savage Park. It existed purely for this reason: A full and complete allowance of a self, including all the ineptness, failure, and possibility of death, because it is understood that only with this allowance do we have the capacity to be great.

In contemporary American culture, play has been viewed primarily as an activity. But Roger Caillois’s 1961 book on play, Man, Play, and Games, states that play is free, separate, uncertain, unproductive, governed by rules, and make-believe — yet he also added, brilliantly, “the structures of play and reality are often identical, but the respective activities that they subsume are not reducible to each other in time or place. They always take place in domains that are incompatible.”

Play, as Caillois saw it, might completely mimic reality, but it was not reality. It was a reality twin.

Play demands an element of risk

Adventure playgrounds arrived in Britain in the late 1940s and 1950s, but in the United States, adventure playgrounds simply did not take hold in the same way. In the years following World War II, the public playground declined in America, in part because middle-class families provided their children with their own backyard playgrounds.

What’s more, American playgrounds can’t look like Hanegi Playpark or other adventure playgrounds because Americans refuse to make peace with their own death and dying. This approach is built into the culture at the most profound levels, and the mostly unconscious indoctrination into this perspective begins when we are very young.

American playgrounds that are designed to adhere to the regulations of the Consumer Product Safety Commission and that are subject to reviews by certified playground inspectors and that have instructions for uniform installment of playground equipment that are specific down to the half-inch — these kinds of structures are fantasies for adults, fantastic fortress images we build to reassure ourselves that death will not happen to our children there. They are temples to that idea.

The idea that we — and our children — are never really “safe” is hard to live with. But the good news is that we also don’t have to live with the opposite idea — that we are always “unsafe.” Be Here Now was a mantra of the 1960s; these days, I think we might, realistically, need to simplify the goal a bit: Be Here. And with that goal, we may finally begin to ask ourselves the question: Where are we? Moving beyond the dichotomy of safe/unsafe, beyond I won’t die/I am dying, where are we? For most of us, most of the time, we are in a place where we are neither totally “safe” nor “unsafe.” We are in time, in space, we are living.

Play can — and should — be part of work

Our adult relationship to play may vary widely. We may choose never to play; we may never realize that the option to play is open to us; we may take shortcuts in the form of drugs or alcohol to enter a simulacrum of the play state; or we may discover that we want to, and can, play all the time, even when we are supposedly working.

Play is ultimately less of a what and more of a how. Yet we do not generally think of play like this; we think of play as being a stereotypically playful-looking action performed primarily by children, and we put this play action in context by defining it as not-work. So we don’t so much define play itself; we define play by emphasizing the importance of work in relation to it. For example, we tell children that they must stop playing and do homework, and then, eventually, like Mom and Dad, get work (a job).

And yet: We are here for only a short time. We are going to die. How will you live your life? is really the only important question there is, and “playfully” is one of the most courageous, most generous, and most fully human ways to answer this question.

To play, you do not need a particular object or game or even a playground; you need only an assent, a grateful and glad yes. Granting this yes, to and for ourselves, in every environment, even awful ones, is one of the most liberating things humans can do.

Excerpted from Savage Park: A Meditation on Play, Space, and Risk for Americans Who Are Nervous, Distracted, and Afraid to Die with permission from Amy Fusselman and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Author of The Pharmacist’s Mate, 8, Savage Park. Forthcoming in July ‘18: Idiophone, Coffee House Press

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