During a panel discussion on a famous French intellectual’s theory of play, a Warsaw neighbourhood group dedicated to child intelligence demonstrates that a lack of formal education doesn’t necessarily mean a lack of knowledge.
From the anthropological point of view, there is no community whose members are unfamiliar with the idea of leisure activity. The French intellectual, literary critic, philosopher and sociologist Roger Caillois made play the subject of deep research and analysis, which bore fruit in his identification of the fundamental rules that govern it.
The great thinker’s fascination with the question of games and play may have resulted from a lack of them in his early life. Caillois entered school practically the day he started to walk, and never really left it. From primary school he advanced relatively quickly to higher education, finally becoming a lecturer himself. In 1936, he founded the anti-fascist group Contre-Attaque, and, moving in the circles of the Parisian intellectual avant-garde, worked with numerous publications, including some that he founded. Simultaneously, Caillois conducted research and lectured. In such a busy schedule, play could find space only as the subject of research and theoretical deliberations, because for the academic born in 1913, they were characterized by things foreign and unpleasant to him: fictitiousness and a lack of productivity.
I was reminded of Caillois’s theories when among shrieks, rattles, and airborne cushions and stuffed animals, I attempted to collect my thoughts ahead of yet another meeting with the youngest members of the group of intellectuals who work with “Przekrój”. Their energy and vigour prompted simultaneous admiration and terror. In such situations, one must look for rescue in the uncompromising maintenance of cold professionalism. I sorted the truly Dantesque scenes I witnessed into four mental categories: agon (competition for the purpose of identifying a victor), alea (to simplify: a lottery, quirk of fate), mimicry (imitation) and ilinx (bewilderment). The panellists, despite their lack of formal education, betrayed a deep understanding of Caillois’s theses. They moved freely from one category to another, demonstrating before my eyes the full range of behaviours that make up play, with an ease and a zest that only seasoned experts on the question can manage. Will they be able to transcend the horizon of knowledge drawn out by the eminent Frenchman?
I open the discussion with a provocative question.
What kind of playing is good playing?
Hugon: [in a fraction of a second] The kind that tires you out.
Hania: Playing is good when we play something we’re really good at, that works really well for us, like jumping rope. But you don’t have to be good to have good playtime.
Lu: And grown-ups play by watching movies and drinking wine.
Hania: Sitting at the table, talking, and drinking beer!
Hugon: I don’t know, because I’m not interested in that.
Lu: Grown-ups have a lot of fun when they have a baby and then play with it. Parents love that the most: have a baby and then play together right away.
Hania: My mum is a little bored with that.
Hugon: Grown-ups are always boring.
Hania: Sometimes they’re boring, sometimes cool.
Lu: For me, grown-ups are pretty interesting, because they help you with things. They’re always interested, but sometimes they don’t have time to play. But they like to help you with life and that’s nice of them.
Hania: I like it when mum reads my homework with me, that’s the best.
Lu: When I grow up and have children, I’m not going to give them any sweets, cola, none of that. And then when they grow up, they won’t like them. I thought that up myself!
Who plays better? Boys or girls?
Hania: Girls, because girls have better ideas than boys.
Hugon: No way!
Lu: And they can cry.
Hugon: No way!
Boys can’t cry?
Lu: Of course they can, but they have these different hormones that let them cry less. Actually I don’t know what a hormone is.
Hania: Me neither.
Do you play in the courtyard sometimes, like grown-ups used to?
Hania: I like the courtyard better, with my friends; or a field, or somewhere – escaping from trolls, that kind of game. The troll takes you to a place you call hell.
Lu: Every hell is a place you call hell!
Hugon: I’m not supposed to play in the courtyard.
And in the forest?
Lu: What’s that?
Everyone: Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!
Can you play without toys?
Lu: Yes! With what? Stones, sticks, bottles, even a cat, but she has to like it.
It’s strange that there are no shops with sticks, stones and leaves to play with!
Lu: They don’t have those shops because they’re everywhere, and for free.
Hugon: No, first you have to find them! You don’t see a lot of stones.
Lu: They’re all over the place, you just have to look hard, under the leaves.
Hugon: Yes, but it’s hard work, that’s what I mean! You have to find them, you have to spend time on it, so you kind of lose a little time, so it’s not for free. Nothing is totally free.
How do you learn to play?
Lu: You just play.
Hania: You can suggest different kinds of games to other kids, get to know friends, talk a little bit first.
Hugon: Or you go up to other kids and join them, and you learn, right away. You don’t know what it is, but you try.
Lu: We learn by being forced. When you’re small, your mum forces you to play, you can’t say anything. You scream: “Beh, beh!” And your mum goes: “How great! What fun!” And the baby says “Beh, beh!” again. It waves its legs and arms and squirms but it can’t say anything, and the mum doesn’t understand and keeps on forcing it and teaching. And the baby has no choice.
What would a playground for grown-ups look like?
Hugon: A party!
Lu: It would have a lot of computers, so the ones who like to watch things can watch them, and some projectors if somebody likes to watch big huge films, all kinds of small rooms, and they’d have some treadmills and other sport things for people who are really big fans of sport, because there are some of those, but there aren’t really a lot. Actually I don’t know. Everything set up for things like a wheelchair or walking on crutches, of course if that kind of grown-up comes there. For children in wheelchairs too, because next door you have to have a playground for children, so they don’t get bored. A different one, an interesting one. Kids might want to play, because they have to wait there for their mum or dad, so there has to be something for them next door, or even in the back.
Hania: My dad doesn’t get bored at my playground, because he takes his computer and works. And he likes his work.
Lu. My mum, too.
Hugon: I don’t know about my mum, I’m not interested in that.
Do you play as much as you want?
Hania: Oh, no! My mum’s always telling me to read. “Do your reading! Do your reading!” We bring them back to the library, but so what, because we just check out more, I always have to do something. Every day! That’s no fun. I read every day!
Hugon: Every day should be a day off!
Lu: My teacher dreams of that!
Hugon: Work is sleeping! Even a toy shop attendant gets bored if nobody comes in. They sit and get bored. Even there.
Lu: Can we stop now? My cat is getting bored.
Hugon [to the cat]: If you’re bored, blink! Oh, he blinked!
Is recording for “Przekrój” professional work, or is it actually playing?
Hania: No, because it’s boring. Sitting, talking and listening. A little food sometimes, a little milk.
Hugon: It’s really boring, but when we eat, that’s actually not boring for me, because I like to eat.
Lu: Let’s stop, the professionals have to drink milk!
Hania: Oh yeah, milk for the professionals!
All: Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!
Hugon: And for the cat! If you want some, blink once. If you don’t, blink twice. He blinked! And that’s a professional ending!
Translated from the Polish by Nathaniel Espino