Taking play seriously

I was with him forming all things: and was delighted every day, playing before him at all times. —Proverbs 8:30

There is an old story about a weary, way-worn juggler who performs his very last act before a statue of the Virgin Mother and Child in a dark church on Christmas Eve. This playful gift of flying colored balls was a gift of delight offered to the Monarchs of Heaven, and one blessed by a miracle when the image of the Child catches the last falling ball even as the clown falls to the floor in death—his soul in the hand of God.

The clown of God could offer nothing but his frivolity, but the human race is, after all, a frivolous race. But play is pure. It is even profound. Christ become a Child to make all things new (Rev. 21:5), even as children do when they play. In the education of children, there are fewer lessons to be taken more seriously than the lesson of play—of making things new, of playing well in all stages of life and learning, so that the delights of the visible and invisible may play a part in every soul’s salvation.

As a definition for “Play,” the distinction of Mr. Thomas Sawyer should serve with strong authority: “Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do… play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.” So be it. But if Play has anything obligatory about it, it is as the playmate of Wonder, for hand-in-hand they go, encountering and engaging the beauty of things with delight. Play exercises the imagination to recreate the goodness of things in a smaller way in order to participate one day in the goodness of things in a larger way.

Play is both the beginning and the end of wisdom, as it delights in truth before it is fully known and then again, once it is known. The delight that introduces children to the world, and to the work of the world, regains its sway once that world and its work has been undertaken and understood as good, true, and beautiful. Play prepares children for serious engagement, but that labor in turn prepares people to play again as old men. Unless you become as little children…

Thus, wise men play for the same reasons that children play: to bask in the delight of truth, goodness, and beauty and, in so doing, to catch a glimpse or some fleeting flash of the Maker Himself. “Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made” (Rom 1:20).

The Father hides for his children as they seek him, and this interplay centers on the centripetal or (pardon the wordplay) theotripetal force in human existence. Those who play, whether infants or ancients, are happy by definition, and it is to the happy that Catholics should look as a guide in the everyday effort of evangelization and education. Happiness is akin to holiness, and keeping many balls at play in the air is a symbol for a life of beatitude.

Sadly, children are losing the ability to play nowadays—which is part of the current crisis in education. Given free time, young ones often do not know what to do with themselves, being so accustomed to incessant, plugged-in entertainment. Emotions, personalities, and thoughts cannot emerge or develop out of passivity. Given experiences of the good, true, and beautiful, juvenile cynics are not drawn to delight, to play. They have been reared and trained in the illusion that there is little to nothing desirable outside one’s self—a principle antithetical to play, which is never self-centered, but always involving another, whether real or imagined, whether sentient or insentient.

Children must learn to play again, and this should be part of the purpose of education as it endeavors to proceed from fresh delights towards familiar delights in the procession of Shakespeare’s world stage—from the infant, all the way to second childishness and mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything. Education begins with teeth, with eyes, with taste, with everything—with the play that is a propensity for proficiency, leading on to labor, and through that labor, on again to play, to delight in the mystery rather than the mastery of things learned. The backyard, the classroom, the church, the sports field, the dining room table, the office; all should be playgrounds of delight in the same great game of redemption. The whole world is but a ball, a cherished toy, a dear plaything, held in the hand of the Child.

If anything is taught in the work of education, it should be play. True education draws the imagination towards activity and creativity—towards engagement and enjoyment, towards play, by keeping things fresh, by making things new, as things are seen for the first time on the one hand, and seen again for the first time on the other.

Teachers who play with their subjects before God and before their students will teach. They will teach through delight and towards delight. There is no such thing as dull play, and neither should there be any such thing as dull education. Wisdom was with God from the beginning, playing in his presence and in his creation. Man is called, beckoned, to play before God in His creation just as the juggling clown did, and even as God Himself does in His cosmos and with the leviathan he made to play with (Ps 104:26).

Play and the spirit of play must not be dismissed as foolishness, but as wisdom, the highest goal of education. Virtue is characterized not by force, but by facility. Education should aim for this virtuosity, this virtuosic play, ready and rearing to rejoice in the good, true, and beautiful things of God, uniting work and play in a single vision of wisdom. This is a profound secret of education, and it is the secret of profound play, of serious play.

SEAN FITZPATRICK is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and serves as the headmaster of Gregory the Great Academy in Elmhurst, Pa. He also serves on the Advisory Council for Sophia Institute for Teachers. His writings on education, literature and culture have appeared in Crisis Magazine, The Imaginative Conservative, and Catholic Exchange.

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