Thoughts on Work and Play

Near the end of 2015, I wrote this:

“Play” might sound the same as “experiment.” Both are means of learning that require openness and flexibility. But experimenting is methodical, and typically takes a process from beginning to end, including appropriate analysis. Playing is not necessarily methodical and it doesn’t require completion to end. How many messes have you seen in living rooms and playrooms and classrooms, as children abandon their play to do something else? Playing is no less important than experimenting, but it is approached less seriously.

After struggling to “play” as I made my recent table runner, after being encouraged to improvise rather than following plans, I realized I need more thought on the differences between work and play. (And I intend to follow up with some thoughts on improvisation vs. planning.)

So I thought about what defines play for children. Children play in physical ways, learning to roll a car or ball across the floor, or do somersaults or skip or swing. They sing silly, rhythmic, made-up words. They color and cut and paste, and build towers of blocks before knocking them down. They love games like Concentration and Snakes & Ladders. They play house and pirates and going-to-the-store. They expend enormous amounts of energy learning about their environment, developing physical skills, and understanding relationships between people. Child development expert Maria Montessori said, “Play is the work of the child.”

But what they do is not the only marker of whether they are working or playing. Imagine a child in pre-school during time designated for art. The teacher has given each child a sheet of paper, a glue stick, and a stack of pre-cut, construction paper shapes. Then the teacher shows the children how to attach each of the shapes to achieve a colorful flower. Does the child see this as play? Research suggests not:

According to the few studies that have been conducted around children’s views of play they distinguish work from play based on cues; emotional and environmental. Emotional cues “include the amount of choice a child has in an activity, whether the activity is voluntary or not and how easy it is.” Environmental cues “include where the activity takes place, whether or not an adult is involved or evaluates what the child has done and the physical nature of the activity.” Children use all these cues to determine how play-like an activity is, meaning things can be more or less like play or work.

In other words, children define play based on who is making the rules, and who is evaluating the results. When the child gets to choose when, what, and how to participate, and is not evaluated for their performance, it is play.

So what does “play” mean relative to quilting? Sometimes it’s easier for me to understand something if I back into it. What does “play” NOT mean? It does NOT mean
* joyless struggling to fit someone else’s definition
* following patterns to a T
* wonky stars and log cabins just because wonky
* or simple just because simple
* or complex just because complex.

To me, play does not mean following someone else’s decisions or labels. As for the children, it is doing what I want, when I want, by my own rules and subject to no one’s judgment but my own. Play is both natural and educational. It teaches new lessons and reinforces lessons already learned. It is, more than anything, a pleasure even if not always “fun.”

By that definition, almost all of my quilting is play. I choose what I do and how I do it, to please myself. I learn and relearn and generally enjoy the process. This is regardless of how planned, structured, or deliberate the process.

Perhaps I just need to change how I see it. Maybe this is the part I need to take to heart more completely:

In 2016, I will try to guide my quilting and other parts of my life with PLAY. I will try to take a light-hearted and compassionate approach, for my quilts, my relationships, and myself. I want to be unafraid of abandoning things that don’t interest me. I want to learn to tell stories in a playful way. I want to read with more pleasure and less feeling of obligation. I’ll try to see and hear with a beginner’s mind, open to new ideas and new ways of doing things.

Making with a light heart, compassion, and pleasure. That is play. Let’s PLAY!


17 thoughts on “Thoughts on Work and Play

  1. Thread crazy

    Play for me is getting lost in the hum of my sewing machine while I create, whatever I feel like doing at the moment. My creativity goes into my playtime and the results are just an after thought. Enjoyed the post.

  2. allisonreidnem

    This is very challenging for me. Being naturally more serious than lighthearted, I find engaging in things without a tangible end result a bit tricky – creating tensions in me rather than releasing them! Play obviously does have a purpose for adults as well as children. I shall continue to follow your progress with this word of the year with interest. I have a lot to learn!

  3. snarkyquilter

    For myself, I’d add the following to your definition of play: don’t overthink it, in fact, stop thinking and go with instinct. There will be time to re-engage my critical faculties later when I assess my play pieces.

  4. norma

    Play to me is a patchwork with only the slightest idea of where I’m going. I enjoy the colour and the thought that I might not make anything of it.
    Working is pressure, as you say trying to get a big quilt through a domestic machine. ..

  5. katechiconi

    Well said. I have always resented regulated ‘playtime’ where others decide for me when and what I should be doing. It’s why I’ve never enjoyed following patterns by other people, why I dislike the word ‘should’ in the context of my sewing projects, and why increasingly I find submitting quilts for judgement by others not very enjoyable. Quilting is my play, my creative outlet, and who else has the right to determine whether it’s *right* or not? We should each of us create what makes us happy in both the process and the finished result. We should have FUN.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Yes, please please don’t tell me how to play! Creating is play, as well as hard effort sometimes. Work and effort, are they the same thing? Guess the answer would be different from my physics teacher husband than from some other people. 🙂

      1. katechiconi

        Work vs effort is an interesting one. Work can be achieved without registering a blip on any mechanism capable of registering force or effort in a dynamic sense. I think I’m working just as hard when I’m gently stitching while thinking about my next quilting project as I am when wrestling a huge quilt through my domestic sewing machine accompanied by salty language and a raised sweat, because my work is creating. Others would say I’m not ‘working’ at all when doing either of these things because I’m not doing a paid job. What a lot of interesting offshoots this post is raising!


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