The importance of play

Neutral ground

The importance of understanding play in education and morality

A reflection on homo ludens byJohan Huizinga


A system of morality depends upon using reason to observe sentiment and derive

rules for modulating sentiment. What we need to observe is the “internal sense

of feeling, which nature has made universal in the whole species”, the feeling

that makes vice unpleasant and virture pleasant. Vice feels unpleasant because

we know or have been told that it harms a larger community of which we are

part. Similiarly, virtue helps this community. The question then is what forms

these communities at such a young age? Our feelings of vice and virtue start

very young. Furthermore, this “universal sentiment”, which is the basis of

morals, is also preceded by a series of events where it is necessary that “much

reasoning should precede, that nice distinctions be made, just conclusions

drawn, distant comparisons formed, complicated relations examined”. What

precedes this “universal sentiment” and what forms these groups? As educators,

it is crucial to look at and examine the precedent. Play is one of the first

activities of any child. It fits this category best as any I have found as it

is an intersection of intellect and sentiment (the rapture of fun and the

intellectual stimulation of following the rules of the game). If play generates

the logical basis and social context for morality, designing tools and

education in general must seek to understand play and games.

Playis different from ordinary life in duration, locality, secludedness, and its

limited rules. It ismarked by repetition and alternation, which helps children develop a sense of

cause and effect and begin to learn to reason and distinguish between what

their senses tell them and reality (in peek-a-boo for example, a child may

learn that some hidden is not necessairly gone). Three categories of failure

exist within the playground: 1) the “spoil-sport” who does not recognize the

assumptions necessary for play 2) the cheater, who pretends to abide by them by

abuses the rules 3) theloser of a game.

Play is defined by ending outside the “playground”. Plato in the Laws said that seriousness must be leftto the gods and “Life must be lived as play”. To live life as play, each

individual has to be living in a system of explicit rules which they know,

agree to play, and limit the effects of play to the playground. Education then

should seek to help us make explicit the implicit understanding within each

community group (by understanding the history of the culture, etc), to find a

community which we wish to be part (such as a profession). Unfortunately, it is

impossible to limit the effects of our lives on the wider world, and (not

necessairly desirable), and here is where morality enters. However, as Huizinga

notes play-communities often form community groups outside of the play circle.

Play can be used to help create interdependent, overlapping communities that

keep each in mind.