by Bernie De Koven
Some of the most fun we have when we play happens when
we are alone where no one else can see us. And, for some reason, it’s
often even more fun when we’re some place we’re not supposed to be. This
is true for all of us, kids, adults, all of us.
The reason why it tends to be more fun is that what we
can do, unseen, is play, really play. And as soon as somebody happens
by, someone who’s not playing, just watching, unless we’re already deep
in play, so deep that we don’t notice, the way we play changes into
something else. It becomes what you might call a performance. Social
beings that we are, we want to include the other people in our play. And
if they can’t play, if they don’t join in, if they just want to watch,
something changes in the way we play. We get into a different mode, into
something you might call “showing off.”
Another word for showing off is performing. And that’s
really what happens to our play; it becomes a performance. So we focus
less on each other than we do on the people watching us. Sure, we’re
still playing, and we’re playing together. But just not in the same way.
It becomes like we would play if we were playing a sport, in a stadium.
Or if we were playing music, in a theater. Instead of just, you know,
playing around, we want to be good, we want to get applause,
recognition. We want to play for score. And we want to win.
Our play becomes more purposeful, less playful. We don’t
laugh as much or maybe at all, we don’t try out new ways to play
whatever we’re playing, if playing is still what we’re doing.
Now, before I go any further into this, I want to make
it clear that I’m not implying here. I’m not even hinting that one way
is better than another. Not play vs. playfulness. Not play vs.
performance. In truth, some performers are remarkably playful even
though they are performing, or especially because. Improvisers mostly.
Musicians, comedians, who can perform publicly with such confidence and
competence that they don’t need script or score, and can even engage the
audience in playing along with the sheer playfulness of their
performance. But they are nevertheless performing. And the way they play
is nevertheless different when nobody can see them, when they play
I certainly played this way as a child. Improvising, in
hidden places, with my friends. We played games that didn’t have names,
didn’t have rules. Well, maybe a few, but we could change them if we
wanted, if it was more fun.
As a young adult, I fell in deep like with theater. It
was fun. It was exciting even. But it wasn’t until I was in a class in
improvisational theater that I was reminded of the kind of play I
experienced as a child, when we were alone together. And that was when I
discovered the power of adults at play, Of what we could bring each
other, as adults, in play. Not when we were performing. But when we were
learning together. The stage to ourselves. The theater empty except for
us. Nobody watching except fellow players. It was only a taste. We were
after all still performing. And there was the instructor. And we were
playing for grades. But the playfulness, the power that we shared,
making worlds together, responding to whatever anyone did, listening to
each other, building fantasy into something remarkably close to reality,
building it together, almost believing it together. It was better,
deeper than the way I played as a child. It was transforming. For all of
us. Individually. Collectively transforming.
I really, really loved playing like that. So profoundly playful. So
Then I rediscovered games – you know, games like kids play. And I got
to teach those games to adults. And then, while teaching those games to
adults – not so much so that they could learn the games, but so they
could taste and share that experience of play (not performance, play) –
it got, from time to time, so much fun, we got so totally playful that
it just about almost felt like the whole world had become new again. And
lo, it was transforming, transporting, transcendent. And we laughed a
lot and we learned a lot and we freed each other. Just like we did in
improv class. Just like we did when we were kids and we thought nobody
could was watching. We freed each other and became infinite and it was
Since then, I’ve been teaching that kind of play everywhere with
anyone who wanted to learn it. I’ve also been trying to find a name for
the way we played when we played that way. Play wasn’t enough. Neither
was games. The games played weren’t really that relevant, couldn’t
really begin to describe the experience we had playing together. And the
words play and games really didn’t work, had just too many other
meanings. I mean, they’re being used to mean almost the very opposite of
what I mean. Playing someone. Getting played. Getting gamed. Meaning
broken promises. Broken relationships. Broken faith. When the kind of
play I’m talking about is just the opposite of that. Completely.
Lately, I’ve been liking “playful play.” Still play, but playful.
Still playful, but play. Not quite infinite, like Carse’s “Infinite
Games.” Not necessarily creative, but playful. Not like sports. More
like, you know, play.
* * *
Playful play requires a measured abandon, a passionate, conscious
embrace of a state of mind and body that expresses itself in the manner
to which my friend Brian has so gleefully referred as: “cries of
exultant commitment.” We give ourselves over, absent ourselves from all
that is not felicity, embracing not just the game, but our fellow
players; not just the goals but each moment of play.
If I tried to sum up everything I’ve been teaching or seeking to
teach in my last fifty years of sociospiritual entrepreneurship, if I
dared attempt to encapsulate the experience that drew me to
improvisational theater, children’s games, large-scale community events,
human potential workshops, and retreats, I think those are precisely the
two words I’d use. It was, in fact, the very idea of playful play that
led me to writing the book A Playful Path.
For adult human beings, playful play, play that is accompanied by a
positive mood in which we are inclined to behave and think in a
spontaneous and flexible way, is most often pursued only under the
influence of mind altering substances. And, I can now almost readily
admit, that it was those very same substances that led, much earlier in
my career, to my qualified success as a guru of glee. Not, mind you,
because of my particular partaking, but more because these substances
gave rise to a subculture in which spontaneity was the sine qua
something of the life we were so passionately imagining into existence.
I was in a third grade classroom, teaching some games from my freshly
printed Interplay Games Catalog. I had a video camera with me
(a rare find in the late 1960s, one that I had to explain, in detail, my
need for; promise, in even greater detail, when I would return it; sign
things, in triplicate, before I could get the AV department to trust me
with). After playing several games with them, I, as was my wont,
explained that I wanted to take pictures of them at play with my camera,
and invited them to show me some of their favorite games.
Almost as soon as the words came out of my mouth, this girl jumped up
and started playing some kind of advanced paddy cake with one of her
friends – slapping various parts of each other’s bodies, turning around,
touching the ground, swinging hips. I would estimate that within two
minutes everyone in the room was playing one form of paddy cake or
Follow the Leader
By the time just about every kid was playing some variation of paddy
cake or paddy-cake-like game, the girl who started the whole thing,
together with her partner, started parading around the room, weaving
between desks and other players, singing, laughing. And, sure enough,
other kids joined in. And then, as soon as she noticed that almost
everyone was following her, she started doing the craziest things,
crawling under tables, jumping, skipping. And the other kids did their
best to keep up, to do exactly what she was doing, moment by moment.
And she managed to make her leadership constantly enticing, an
open-ended invitation for everyone to play, doing something just long
enough for all the other kids to catch up, and then, as soon as she
noticed someone getting the least bit bored, changing.
It wasn’t like she was leading, but more like she was following the
followers, always staying just ahead of people losing interest, just
below doing things that the kids had too much trouble following.
The Real Game is Never Played the Same Way Twice
Some children are unusually gifted players, not just at being good
leaders, but at having a good sense of play, at keeping people engaged,
at invention, at changing things as soon as they needed to be changed,
and no sooner. Some children are so responsive to others, so playful,
that all the kids who follow them feel safe, feel invited, understand
that if they don’t want to follow they don’t have to follow, if they
want to quit, they can, if they wanted to come join again, they
can do that, too. And whatever they did was fine. No judgment. No rules.
And it all feels so spontaneous, so natural.
I probably wouldn’t have learned so much, have been so amazed at the
play leadership and followership skills that these kids had, have been
so struck by the creativity and sensitivity of their play, if I hadn’t
been trapped behind the camera into having to do nothing but observe.
And, in retrospect, I probably wouldn’t have seen so clearly what those
kids were teaching me during the years I was working with them on my
games curriculum. The rules that anyone talks about when talking about
kids’ games are just suggestions, just starting points, generalities to
be interpreted anew each time the game is played. The real game is never
played the same way twice.
Duck Duck Goose
Duck, Duck, Goose, for example – one of the first games kids taught me.
For schematic purposes, here’s how it’s more or less played:
Everyone sits or stands in a circle, and one kid, the Fox, walks around
the outside of the circle, tapping each kid on the head and saying
“Duck” until she reaches the one kid she wants to get chased by. She
calls the kid “Goose.” The Goose stands up and gives chase. If she tags
the Fox before getting to her vacated seat, the Fox has to start over
again. If she makes it back to her seat, untagged, the kid that got
Goosed is, once again, a happy little Duck. Those are the rules. But
that’s not, necessarily, how the game gets played.
For example, the Goose might suddenly turn around, run the other way,
and jump into her place in the circle before the other Fox can even
complete changing direction. Or the Goose might run right past his place
and chase after the kid who was supposed to be chasing after him. Or two
kids might “accidentally” get up at the same time and maybe run in
opposite directions. Or maybe run across the circle instead of around
To Play Playfully You Need More Than Rules
Sure, sometimes what the kids did was just too, well, playful. The other
kids couldn’t figure out how to play along. So, usually, they’d want to
play something else after that. A lot easier than arguing over the
“real” rules, when, in truth, there aren’t any.
And tag, and hide and seek, and hand-clapping games, and hopscotch, and
jumprope, and marbles – so many different rules, different
interpretations, different strategies, different variations. Because to
play playfully you need more than rules. Or, just as often, less.
In 1971, Bernie De Koven completed a collection of over 1,000 children’s games, organized according to different forms and complexities of social interaction. Called the Interplay Games Curriculum, and published by the School District of Philadelphia, it led to his founding of The Games Preserve, a retreat center for the exploration of games and play for adults, which functioned as a branch of The New Games Foundation. In 1978, he published “The Well-Played Game,” which was re-released by MIT Press in 2013. His most recent book “A Playful Path” was published the following year. He has designed games of all kinds, for couples, families, children, elders. But his greatest impact has been his development of a theory of fun and playfulness, which can affect every aspect of personal and interpersonal, community, and institutional health.
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