Getting our playful natures right

First published on November 2011.

What if the playfulness that has always been a subterranean touchstone for educators since the Romantic period (from Rousseau to Froebel, Steiner to Montessori, Reggio Emilia to Summerhill) has become the Achilles heel of productive subjectivity? What if the regime of flexible production and knowledge management that typifies contemporary Western capitalism is now uniquely exploiting our distinct human openness and flexibility (our neoteny)?

If we can question the fine-grained capitalization of our playful natures, we might find a new foundation for a progressive education. Play brings a sense of joyful indefatigability and energetic resilience, which – like the pleasure of sex for procreation – is evolution’s ‘salute’ to the human animal for maintaining a ‘general liveliness’, in the face of the challenges of existence.

Play is not the soft spot whereby we are made passive ‘dividuals’ (in Gilles Deleuze’s words) by hyper-capitalism. Instead, play is the resilient optimism out of which the very possibilities of societal difference are generated. An education for players, founded in this sociobiological vision, becomes a constructive exercise in building forms of simulation, combination and gaming that rehearse optimism.

The answer returns power to the educator and pupil – but not in the institutions we have inherited from the industrial age. Education has to build those rich ‘grounds of play’ in which the optimism of our species can flourish in a way which outflanks and surpasses any dominion that a powerfully calibrating control-society might assert. It could do no worse than to attend to the peculiarly persistent linking of commons and dynamism that characterises the internet.

Play and play-forms throughout the human lifespan are deeply constitutive processes, shaping the design, functionality and culture of the internet. The internet could represent an extension of the ‘ground of play’ that we see across the higher complex mammals – that open but distantly monitored developmental zone of time, space and resource, where potentiating risks are taken by explorative, energetic organisms, in conditions where scarcity is held at bay.

So the ‘constitutive’ power of play in humanity (that neoteny-driven potentiation that excites both Italian Marxists and Harvard sociobiologists) seems to also require a ‘constitutional’ dimension: a protocol of governance securing certain material and emotional conditions, to enable a rich plurality of play-forms.

When Lawrence Lessig speaks of the internet as an ‘innovation commons’, the resonance with a sociobiological vision of the ground of play is clear. His idea that the internet represents an ‘architecture of value’ is like the conditions for play: both are discernible zones of rough-and-tumble activity in which our socioethical identities are forged.

That our schools and colleges could be ‘innovation commons’ and ‘architectures of value’ – could be ‘constitutional’ as much as ‘institutional’ – is a future that many educational activists are striving to build. Yet they should realise that play is their deep and elemental ally in such activism. And that educational moments which cleave as closely as possible to the generative structures of the internet will also tap the constitutive power of play.

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Illustrations by Paul Davis -