Play, trauma, and recovery

Sensitive content warning: COVID-19, domestic abuse, trauma and recovery.

I’d like to thank whoever chose the GLAM Blog Club theme for this month, and highlight some of my past posts as potential inspiration for anyone thinking of writing about play and games in a libraries/GLAM context – specifically my Talking Points series, especially the second one, on the powers of play.

I’d also like to thank Gene for his moving introduction. I particularly appreciate the courage it took to share his story. He’s far from the only one who has a negative reaction to play as a result of traumatic associations. In fact, I’ve come to realise it’s far more pervasive than is widely understood, and its harms are manifold and often unseen.

I’ve got several posts to write on this topic, but I want to start by honouring Gene’s remarks with a ringing endorsement of his point about supporting those with trauma responses to play, and building on what that means more broadly.

On play, trauma, and wellbeing

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Talking Points reprise: Play, courage, and hope

Content warning: This post mentions play deprivation and neglect, and the embedded video discusses this in more depth, along with violence, mental illness, and animal cruelty.

Watch this (with the content warning above in mind if needed!):

(For some reason the embedding isn’t allowing me to bookmark the starting time, so skip to 1:20 – though the introduction is pretty interesting. And so is the bit just afterwards, where Dr Brown talks about his work with a serial killer. Or, you know what, just watch the whole thing. It’s ALL pretty interesting.)

I’ve mentioned before that mammals deprived of play die. As Brown goes on to discuss in the above video (at 11:41), one specific story of how that happens comes from experiments with rats. Rats deprived of play as pups, and a group of normal/playful control rats, were both exposed to stimuli suggesting a hungry cat was nearby. Naturally, both kinds of rats hid from the mortal threat. But where the normal rats would eventually, cautiously, poke their noses out to see if the cat was gone, the play-deprived rats never did. They literally wasted away because they refused to risk coming back out. When Brian Sutton-Smith said that the opposite of play is not seriousness or work, but depression, he had in mind the full, potentially catastrophic disorder.

Contrast that fearfulness to the husky in this video clip, who is confronted by a clear threat she is unable to avoid (note her chain). Instead she shows incredible courage and a kind of transformative engagement with the situation. She doesn’t seek to ignore, deny or escape the polar bear: she engages in what improv theatre (a fascinating form of play that you could describe as “stage play without a stageplay”) calls “yes, and”, acknowledging and accepting the other while bringing herself… to bear? into play? There are too many puns here… while asserting herself onto the situation.

Obviously risk-taking is a double-edged sword, and recklessness can be as dangerous as fearfulness. Sometimes a cat is still there. But in play, young animals – including humans – test and learn their own limits, making their risk-taking not reckless (in the sense of lacking reckoning against reality) but informed. The playful rats weren’t gung-ho, they just were prepared to act on the basis that things sometimes change for the better.

The links here to innovation are obvious, and those to freedom, but surely so are the links to mental health. Courageous acceptance-and-optimism is necessary not only in engaging with the outer world but in confronting one’s own demons and resisting the emotional pressures of a misfiring brain.

Play helps us foster that kind of realistic courage, the willingness to face up to the scary and unpleasant and the hopeful determination to do what we can to make things better, even if we’re not sure of the outcome of those efforts. And that’s something we need more of.

Talking Points: Play, happiness, and health

You wouldn’t know it to look at our arts or health or archival policies – or even, to a lesser extent, education – but a tremendous amount of research has been undertaken on play and health in numerous dimensions: physical, mental, emotional, social. There are numerous practitioners in each of these disciplines battling away to get better recognition of play and games, but the policy framework – and particularly the funding framework – for the playful arts is still negligible. (There’s an interesting post on why this is to be had… another time!) Changing this and enabling the community to better tap into and explore the world of play is one of my key objectives in writing this blog, and indeed in the work that I do generally.

I could cite numerous papers on the health effects of play for body (strength, health, flexibility, dexterity, speed, senses, reflexes), mind (memory, perception, comprehension, analysis, intuition), soul (motivation, happiness/pleasure/joy, creativity, assumptions that problems can be solved, capacity for reflection-in-action, drive to learn, ability to centre oneself), and what you might call intersoul – the part of us that inhabits and thrives in our connection to others – and at some point I’ll do that. But this is just a Talking Point and I’m short of time, so I’m going to argue from first principles instead and leave you to seek out the evidence yourself.

It follows logically from the previous discussion about the nature of play as a concept (that it is fundamentally about acting according to one’s nature) that play promotes activity. Given that we know that all of our faculties grow in response to moderate, unforced exercise – and dwindle with neglect – it makes sense that play in and of itself tends to be (though as always, subject to the complex interaction of specific activities and circumstances) a force for health in whichever elements of ourselves we allow to play.

The obverse is also true. Where people – and indeed mammals – are actively restricted from play, there are immediate effects on their health in all the above dimensions. Indeed, and this is one of the studies I’d link to if I had time, some experimental animals completely deprived of play became terminally miserable and died.

(The parallels to the links between freedom and health should, of course, be obvious.)

These findings have been behind the efforts of numerous educators to see play reinstated as central to education, but just as I believe that learning needs to be lifelong, I think play needs to be as well. An adult life deprived of play – whether actively or through passive exclusion – leads to that adult being less happy and healthy, and therefore – counterintuitively, if you’re a beancounter who insists that only the readily quantifiable should inform decisionmaking – more of a burden both to themselves and to others. This has ramifications that go beyond the cultural and medical, and include the political, economic, and industrial.

Still think play is fundamentally trivial?

(Click here to read the next post in the series: Play and learning.)