With CounterPlay, the Danes are providing a blueprint for the Playful Society. The annual conference / festival of play takes place in Aarhus (pron: ore-huss), 2017 European Capital of Culture. It brings together play practitioners, academics, followers and thinkers to explore every aspect of play, in all parts of our lives.

There’s a danger that academic dimensions of play can end up very dry – “Oh yes, play is very interesting to observe, but gosh no, we wouldn’t actually play ourselves!” At the other extreme, practitioner-led play events can sometimes be great fun, but lacking in investigative ‘bite’. This is why CounterPlay’s perfect blend is so powerful. At the event we played hard – but still took a moment to stop and reflect about what we discovered.

Play is mysterious, and any attempt to define it and tie it down tends to be met with resistance.

At CounterPlay I saw the participants handling this mystery with respect. We prodded at play, massaged the edges to try to find out what we could about its shape, but resisted the urge to go at it with a hammer in desperation to find out what’s inside. This gentle approach felt the right one to me – I was welcomed by other play-explorers and invited to be vulnerable, to share, to experiment, and to do all this with heart.

It’s a cliché, I know, but this is an event where you truly do get out as much as you put it. Whether by teaming up with others to flock around the venue, or sharing your views on what you are experiencing from your own unique perspective, everyone has so much to contribute.

I know that the most frequent complaint was that there was just too much on – and too many difficult choices to be made between great sessions!

“Here, surely, is the seed from which the Playful Society must grow.”

What was a joy to experience, though, was that when someone felt ‘I ought to go to this session”, or “I should be interested in this topic” there was a general acceptance that this could be overruled by what you’re drawn to. And here, surely, is the seed from which the Playful Society must grow. Unlike the ‘productive’ society, the playful society starts and ends with consent, and with the joyful pursuit of one’s own fascinations.

I’m not someone who believes a life of play will be pure fun and no pain (and that certainly isn’t what play has taught me). But it is intentional and directed at activities of depth and value. A world in which we make hard choices, sure, but not where we do so through undesired obligation or sense of duty.

It’s a scary world, unmediated by many of the norms that can provide comfort or prioritise safety over all else, but one that a growing group of optimistic adults are seeking to build.

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