Back to that Saturday night game in our friends’ home. We played for over an hour. My abiding memory is of the tingly thrill throughout my body when I was hiding. My breath quickened. My limbs were taut. My muscles strained with the effort of keeping still.
It seems to me now that what I was feeling was quite close to what children feel when they are truly immersed in the emotions that arise when playing games – especially physical games. I felt myself to be in the grip of the same fears, the same joys, the same thrill of victory and the same pang of disappointment from defeat. In my determination not to be found, all other concerns faded into the background.
For us grown-ups, it can be an effort to play such games, as I acknowledged in Part 1 of this post. But for children, actively seeking out thrills and emotional uncertainty is their experiential food and drink. My teenage daughter and her friend were very keen to keep playing (“just one more round, please?”)
Some of those at the forefront of research on play argue that emotional intensity is not simply a consequence of playing. It is, in a sense, what defines the process of playing. For the academic Brian Sutton-Smith – whose book The Ambiguity of Play is at the apex of modern play scholarship – all play ultimately revolves around ‘affect expression and regulation’.
The suggestion is that when children are playing, whatever the surface appearance of their games, at a deeper level it is their own emotional life that is being explored. Hide-and-seek is one case study of this process. But there are plenty more. Play fighting, rough-and-tumble play, horseplay, dizzy play, dare games and the sharing of ghost stories are all obvious examples.
Sutton-Smith also argues that this impulse for emotional stimulation is instinctive. The young of our species are drawn to create states of heightened emotion for themselves as a result of evolution, he thinks, because of its adaptive benefits. In a striking phrase, he declares – on the very last page of The Ambiguity of Play – “I define play as a facsimilization of the struggle for survival as this is broadly rendered by Darwin”. Playwork academics Stuart Lester and Wendy Russell make a parallel claim when they state that risk-taking in play is centrally to do with ‘being in control of being out of control’ (see their publication for Play England Play for a Change summary report [pdf link] p.24 and note 12).
These arguments about the intimate connections between play and the emotions were familiar to me. I must confess I am still wondering whether all play involves the emotions in quite such a fundamental way. In any case, playing hide-and-seek brought this home to me: many of children’s games only begin to make any kind of sense when their emotional aspects are properly appreciated.
PS some might say that if playing hide-and-seek marks a high point in the emotional intensity of my weekend, then I need to get out more. But I say: don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.
PPS I remained unfound at the end of the last round, hidden behind a coat rack, within touching distance of my seeker. Is it wrong to take pride in that achievement?
my favourite is the living room curtains and hearing them pass back and forward a few times and then i magically appear in the kitchen making a cup of tea – still a hiding place…
We currently run a street play project within a housing estate, every night for the past few weeks the children have requested that we play ‘blocky’ and ‘manhunt’ both of which have similarities to the traditional hide and seek . The sessions can last for over three hours and it’s great to see, hear and also feel the mass of emotions that are experienced during this time. Privileged to be part of it!
Trish – yup, curtains often do the job! Claire – great to hear your story. I’d love to hear more about your project if you can share this with us.
Tim, I am more than happy to discuss the project thanks for the interest.. Street play has been running for just over a year, it was set up in response to the lack of term time play opportunities within the community.
The overall aim of the project was to sustain relations built through the holidays and also to encourage more children and young people to access the outdoors as a playspace. In addition to this we aim to raise tolerance to children’s play behavior by providing a reassuring presence for the adults, parents, other professionals etc listening to their concerns, issues whilst advocating for play.
Currently we have a pram base for transport, pieces of tarpaulin, rope, tyre, cardboard and other essential loose parts and travel to different streets throughout the night, some might say not a pretty sight but the kids seem to love it!
Street Play is just one of the projects we run within the community, we also facilitate holiday play scheme, have worked to develop two play priority areas and more recently are in the process of developing an adventure playground, very exciting but also challenging!
Any feedback or comments would be greatly received..