Paige Zen on the Power of Play in Hard Times

Recently I learned some important lessons from Paige Zen on the value of play during hard times.

First, let me tell you a secret: I think play can save the world.

Or at the very least, I think it is one of the main things that saves the world.

I believe this and have since I was young.

That’s one of the main reasons I teach philosophy of play at my local college. And it is also one of the major reasons I write about play so much on my blog.

But even though I believe this, I sometimes worry about this belief.

That is because there is so much suffering in the world.

“Sepulchre Arc-en-Barrois”, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I could list a bunch of examples of suffering in the world like poverty, the housing crisis, the Urkaine-Russia War and the Israeli-Palestinian War.

But I suspect I don’t have to tell you about such things. You are probably aware, just like I am, of the suffering in the world.

The other day, while preparing lessons for my play class, I had a panic attack thinking about all this.

And I thought to myself,

“It feels irresponsible to teach students about play in the midst of all this suffering.

How does play end wars? How does play solve the housing shortage.”

And suddenly, despite feeling profound joy and inner strength this semester while teaching my play class, I felt somewhat ashamed.

I said to myself,

“Shelly, play is privilege, and it is irrelevant to people suffering.”

Don’t worry. I only thought this for a moment, and I will return shortly to the idea that play is privilege.

But first I want to tell you about my friend Paige Zen who visited my play class the other day.

Paige is a ludologist or a professional play-ologist.

She is the founder of two major play festivals in Kentucky, PlayThink and the Kentucky Yoga Festival, as well as several other play festivals.

Picture courtesy of PlayThink’s Facebook page.

Both these festivals were inspired by the play and flow theories of Hungarian psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

You can read more about his work here: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the Father of Flow.

Of course, they were also inspired by powerful play experiences Paige had in her youth, such as attending play festivals with her parents.

The day Paige came and spoke in class, she told us about her journey to creating PlayThink and the Kentucky Yoga Festival and why play has been so powerful in her life.

Play has been a powerful catalyst for Paige in moving through various difficulties in her own life.

And she has witnessed play do the same thing with folks at PlayThink.

She told a story specifically of a disabled woman who was rarely able to leave her own house. But one year, she was able to attend PlayThink.

This woman mainly sat quietly and watched throughout PlayThink.

But at one point, moved by the spirit of play, the woman stood and spread her arms out and sang a song, releasing (if only for a moment) the weight of her disability.

Paige spoke in our class right after I had my panic attack while preparing play lessons and thinking about the suffering in the world.

At one point, Paige opened the class up for questions.

I asked her what she would say to someone who argued that play is irresponsible in the midst of so much suffering.

Paige pointed out that when we get really wrapped up in all the suffering in the world, we start to feel anxious, depressed, and even hopeless.

She noted that it is hard, almost impossible, to solve any problems in the world, or even in our own lives, when we are full of anxiety and hopelessness.

I thought back to my panic attack I’d had the other night, thinking about the problems of the world.

I observed quietly to myself that I had solved precisely zero world problems in that state.

Underscoring my personal observation, Paige further pointed out that when we play, we cultivate feelings of love, joy, hope, and peace.

These feelings, she suggested, create a space in which it is much easier to solve problems, whether personal or political.

And play can also enable us to share these positive feelings with those around us and the world in general.

Photo by Aziz Acharki, courtesy of Unsplash

Her point reminded me of a quote about worry by Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hanh. He says,

Worrying does not accomplish anything. Even if you worry twenty times more, it will not change the situation of the world. In fact, your anxiety will only make things worse.

Even though things are not as we would like, we can still be content, knowing we are trying our best and will continue to do so.

If we don’t know how to breathe, smile, and live every moment of our life deeply, we will never be able to help anyone.

I have been thinking about Paige and Thich Nhat Hanh’s arguments since then, especially when I teach my philosophy of play class.

In philosophy of play, we certainly spend time in the classroom, reading arguments by philosophers about play and various forms of play, like sports.

Students read, discuss, and write—just like they would in any philosophy class.

But we also regularly go outside and play.

For instance, a few weeks ago, we went outside and practiced juggling.

And yesterday we played with hula hoops, frisbee and a parachute.

Sometimes we stay inside and play. For instance, we color or do debates.

College can be stressful, but in these playful moments, I feel the stress that both I and my students often carry fall away.

We connect more deeply with ourselves and each other, and we feel deep joy, freedom, strength, and optimism.

And the more I think about it, the more I think that these are the very attitudes and feelings that empower us to change the world.

It’s hard to feel like we can change anything when we feel alone, isolated, alienated from each other and ourselves, sad, crushed by life, and hopeless,

In difficult times like this, we need a way to connect with ourselves and each other and to cultivate strength and joy. That’s what play allows us to do.

Play is powerful.

And that is why play-ologists and play researchers find that play can give people the resources they need to survive and heal from traumatic situations.

You can read more about that here: Ash Perrin on Play and the Power of Imagination.

Now, no one should ever be forced to play. True play is free. So forcing people to play in fact destroys play.

Sometimes it takes a while to feel ready to play.

But for folks who do feel ready to play, even in suffering, play can save the world, both our own world and the larger one.

Play can give us the internal resources we need to solve problems in our own life and the larger community.

And it can give us the internal resources we need to weather the painful and traumatizing situations all of us face in life.

But what about the concern that play is privilege?

Certainly there are some people who have more space—literally and metaphorically–to play.

We should not begrudge them of that time and space, for the reason I have mentioned above.

Rather, we should recognize that play is a right that everyone should have.

It is one of the deepest expressions of our humanity and empowers us to flourish as human beings.

Friedrich Schiller argues,

Man plays only when he is a man in the full sense of the word, and he is only a complete man when he plays.[1]

You can find Schiller’s On the Aesthetic Education of Man on Amazon or at your local bookstore or library.

Our concern should not be that people are playing.

Our concern, rather should be that some people have opportunity to play severely diminished or taken from them.

That is one of the problems playing must help us solve.

How we solve that problem and what that solution looks like is the topic of another post.

For now, I would like to close by noting that playing freely, joyfully, and often is one of the best thing you can do to make the world a better place.


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[1] Schiller, Friedrich. On the Aesthetic Education of Man. Keith Tribe, trans. Penguin Classics. UK. 2016., pg. 56-57.

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