Michael Mendizza

Writer, Filmmaker

The Play Look


Parenting, Play is Learning

Between Crawling & Walking

Calry Elizabeth is like a little CSI tank or bulldozer chugging across the floor, reaching, investigating, touching and tasting everything on the path, relentlessly. She makes my usual twelve to fourteen hour day look like a nap. The mama nurturing, papa playing dynamic now begins to shows its teeth. Not being ‘in arms’ means great new vistas to explore with related dangers. Mama hovers and protects while papa temps and encourages, a beautiful Yin/Yang set of complimenting balances, not always but in general this is the case.

As Carly turned the corner bulldozing into the kitchen I, with an unusual thud, plopped to the floor on hands and knees. She stopped. My head turned, smiling. She got it and began her escape laughing wildly. I chugging away in hot pursuit. The game was on.

There had been ‘play looks’ before but somehow this one was more dramatic than peek-a-boo. Some years ago original play researcher Fred Donaldson, PhD, described the ‘play look,’ as a nonthreatening physical expression; tilted head, soft eyes, relaxed body and smile, that conveys two things; you are lovable and completely safe. Completely safe, well almost and lovable means that nothing bad can happen in this relationship. We might fall down but that is different. It is not relationship that caused the harm. There is no win or lose, no psychological comparison, freedom to risk, to take chances, try new things and explore, the freedom to touch and move together in new and different ways, in a word to play. This play look meant all these things. A concept was born in Carly Elizabeth’s mind. This is play! This is exciting, full of energy, attention, learning, pleasure and its fun.

Physicist David Bohm described the profound meaning that a concept represents. He described how Ann Sullivan, Hellen Keller’s teache, completely changed that young girl’s life by pumping water over Hellen’s hand then signing the word water over and over, the sensation of water then the symbol in the palm of her hand. Then it happened. A concept formed and the mind was changed forever. This play look felt something like that.

David also went so far as to say, and firmly, that the nature of the entire thought structure is a form of play, and to treat it otherwise is to play falsely with that nature, to dwell in delusion about one’s self and others. Wow. That is a very big idea and absolutely true. Tragically, most of what we do with our thoughts as parents is not treated as play. We are quite serious about it. Let’s take a look.

Insight, being seized by some flash of inspiration, is not thought. Generally thought is the result of memory, translated into symbols and metaphors, otherwise known as language, and tossed around in the playground called imagination. While this is taking place in the present, the content represents the past. Most often, we are not fast enough or aware enough to catch what is going on. We are enchanted by the show, so enchanted that we ‘reify,’ treat the resonate abstraction as a concreate thing. What began as free forming play is crystalized into a belief, dogma, and we identify with that and then argue about who is right, rewarding and punishing, while our child goes on playing. Get the disconnect?

Fred Donaldson shared that when he plays Fred disappears. In his landmark book Flow, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi notes that in states of optimum learning and performance complete attention is given to the challenge-learning taking place, leaving no attention to reflect on how one is doing while meeting the challenge. That split of attention is Fred. Krishnamurti observed: with complete attention there is no observer. Fred disappears.

Original play, authentic play demands complete attention. Carly Elizabeth is a play master. And now she formed the concept that the play look means something exciting, challenging and sometimes thrilling but completely safe psychologically. That is the key, for parents to be completely safe psychologically. No judgments; no, ‘look what you did.’ No threats. No punishments and no rewards. None of these exist in the authentic play state and that is why learning, performance and mastery shift into warp speed with the play look, at any age, meeting any challenge.

Waite! She’s turning the corner again. Gotta go! Beep-beep.

Michael Mendizza

More on Fred Donaldson and Original Play in The Academy…

Fred is unique, one of a kind. I added our original interview to The Academy. It changed how I viewed and appreciated the need and importance of real play, forever. The interview explores Fred’s personal experience and is based on his Pulitzer nominated book, Playing by Heart. Like Joseph Chilton Pearce, James Prescott, David Chamberlain and so many others Fred points to ‘culture’ and how it distorts our authentic nature. He describes in depth our ‘contest culture’ and contrasts it with what he calls original play, a quality of relationship and belonging with all life that transcends comparison, winning, praise and rewards.

More than an activity, original play is a way of being that is free from the implicit fears that our cultural identity impose. As I noted above, when Fred and we return to our original nature, which is literally to play with life, Fred disappears.

To really understand the Intelligence of Play, how authentic play and intelligence are related, visit the Academy:

Joseph Chilton Pearce: Play Is Learning

Stuart Brown MD: Play Deprivation and The State of Play Science

And Bev Bos: What Every Preschool Could Be