CYC-Online 16 MAY 2000
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Youthwork as play

Mike Baizerman

"Man only plays when in the full meaning of the word he is a man, and he is only completely a man when he plays" – Schiller.

"Life to be human must be lived as play" – Wm. A. Sadler.

Play is thought of as a mode of personal freedom (Sadler, 1969), as “freedom expressing itself". Play as freedom is a primary form of openness (which) provides man with a constant source of new ways to develop, new ways of encountering genuine existential existence . To the existential psychiatrist, Binswanger, “freedom emerges within the boundaries of love". Thus are joined freedom, play and love.

Play, as presented, defines an ideal of childhood and adolescence, often only in retrospect, however. It can be the ideal of youthwork, one approached repeatedly through doing youthwork with a certain orientation and style. The clue lies in the idea that play as freedom is a primary form of openness, of possibility.

Play gives man the opportunity to explore “the world of genuine human possibilities", the “still not yet" (Hope) (Bloch, 1970). “Central to these possibilities is finding personal significance spontaneously" (Sadler, 1969). Play as spontaneity has a “genuine futurity in itself", as Bloch (1970) says of “hope". Youthwork is oriented toward normalcy in the present and as it is projected into the future and comes to be as a new present. So it is that man makes (constructs) himself through living his freedom as making choices, grounding and transforming possibilities into actions.

Youthwork is playful in intent, style and practice in that it is an open moment pregnant with possibilities which youth make into words or actions, a glance or a blow. This openness is seen and heard in the presence of a youthworker whose very availability says “Hi" or “Hi, how's it goin'?" “Come let's play!" is an invitation to be together and to do together, whether through talk, sport, lovemaking, a walk or whatever. Crucial is the invitation, not the resulting form of the play. Basic are the unpredictable results and the means by which these came to be, i.e. how the play was played. Such play is outside of our ordinary work lives (Sadler, 1969), unless we are youth or youthworkers. Then, the two can merge and the reality of play can be the work reality.

Play need not be spirit or games, finite or infinite. What is must be is emergence, the seeing what is coming into being. In youthwork, the games strive to be infinite, with no rules which lead to an end, win or loss, success or failure. “Life is a game" is better wrought as life is play-process, how one does life, indeed matters. In play, one's whole being is present and available; for whatever. This whatever comes out of “the meeting" with another, in M. Buber's term. To him “all real living is meeting". Let us render this as “all real living is play, all real play is meeting, all real play is living through meeting".

A playful youthworker does not know what her day will be like, except that it will be open and full of possibilities as surprises, as happenings, as a talk or a walk or a wait. In this attitude of play, the youthworker does not try to “figure out" the youth or pre-form his response. Both of these actions would objectify the youth and disallow her to become, by forcing over her an interpretive cloth which covers her with us, our interpretations, our understandings, our realities. Instead, the youthworker works at being playful, i.e. not in control of the person. “Let it become", not “Que sera, sera", i.e. what will be, will be. Concern is not with acceptance, what will be, will be, but with possibility, i.e. maybe it could be or “what if...?"

A youthworker at play never knows fully any youth with whom she works; each moment with a youth can be a surprise created by that youth, something unexpected, spontaneous, and new. This is play as birth, bringing forth something never before, during that first-ever moment. It may not be new on earth, not be new for that person and/or not be new for that person in that situation. But it is new for that moment with them together.

Play is real time, not work time. Real time is being with a youth, while work time is doing paperwork, sitting at a desk or attending a staff meeting (usually without attending to what is going on). This insight into real time as being-with-kid time shows how experiencing time is not clock time, how duree is not chronos, how lived time is on a different timepiece. Play is real time, is duree, is a way to delay death by going outside of ordinary time to live for awhile.

What more can one ask?

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