The Power of Play

Do you ever wonder how it is that children can play a single game over and over again, hour after hour, day after day? Do you ever wonder why their play is so important to them, or what influence it has in shaping the adults that they become? Do you ever consider how your play as a child may have shaped the person you are right now?

Today I begin working on the Afterward to my book, which has me thinking back on the overall writing process. Curiously, I am reminded of a game I played in my youth, an outdoor activity known as “Pickle.” I have a strange sense that two major aspects of my approach to writing—and to my career in general—might have been forged while playing this game.

My childhood buddies and I learned about Pickle during baseball practice. It was a drill for developing various ball-playing skills. We found it to be far more than a drill, however. For a year or so we played it nearly every afternoon with absolute excitement and focus.

The structure of the game is quite simple. There are two bases, each guarded by a catcher. The guards toss the ball back and forth. Meanwhile, the other players act as runners, trying to sprint from one base to the other without being tagged by whichever guard has possession of the ball. A “pickle” occurs when a runner is caught in that space between between the bases. Because the ball can be thrown much faster than a runner can sprint, the art comes in out-strategizing the guards in order to make it safely to base; or the art comes in out-strategizing the runners in order to catch them off base.

As a runner, you learn to flirt with failure. If you get tagged three times, you are out of the game. You then become a guard in the next round of play.

Runners are free to stand around on the base all day long, safe as can be. No one can fault them for doing so. Of course, there’s no fun in that. As such, you spend your time as a runner stepping away from the safety of a base, out into the field of possibility. An the other hand, if you are a guard, you work to threaten runners back to base, out of the field of play.

As adults in democratic society, some of us take our roles as guards, encouraging others to stay on the bases that together we have defined; these guards help to ensure the continuity of our culture. Other players take their roles as runners, exploring the ground between bases; by stepping outside the boundaries, these runners help to promote societal evolution. In democracy, as in Pickle, runners and guards work together on the field of play to strike a balance between continuity and progress.

Pickle was a training ground where I learned to flirt with failure at times, and yet stand some important ground at other times. In looking back over my career, I recognize that I’ve spent time playing both roles. I’ve taken risks, stepping out into the field of play to make new strides. I’ve also spent time guarding some kind of base, rooting or institutionalizing various strides in order to establish their value.

What if I hadn't had endless hours as a boy to exercise these attributes in the street, freely playing with my buddies? Would I find myself today embarking on the Afterward to ASC?

18 comments on “The Power of Play

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  18. For me as a kid I spent many hours doing imagination play, whether downstairs in our basement with my Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys, toy soldiers and plastic dinosaurs or out in the park next door hiding in the bushes with toy guns and friends playing soldiers or some more science-fiction version. My younger brother Peter and I thought up long story arcs that we played out for weeks. And every time I saw a movie or read a book it was new grist for the imagination factory.

    For me, though I played baseball, basketball, soccer and other games with mainly boys, I never got comfortable with the whole world of young males in the sports world with their competition, camaraderie and conflict. I remember as a young teenager some of my male friends used to love to play poker for money, but I hated it. I hated when I won and I hated when I lost. It all seemed about straining rather than enhancing connections.

    As a youth I did continue to resonate with the military theme in my play and found a circle of new friends who I played very complicated historical military simulation board games, late nights down in my friends’ dark basements while other young men my age were going out on dates. I think we were a type of pre-computer “nerd”. That continued to be a form of fun and play for me, but also an opportunity to learn system theory, strategy and project management.

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