Helena Kling – Defender of the Playful

I only met Helena Kling a few years ago, though we’ve been corresponding for what seems to be at least a lifetime. Each time we’ve managed to get together (she’s in Tel Aviv), I’ve been astounded at her energy, her vision, her generosity, her passion for play.

There’s very little about her work on the Internet. That makes a lot of sense, given that Helen is so completely focused on participating in the experience of play. Not just writing about it or teaching it, but living it. Luckily, someone thought to write a Internet-accessible article about her. Which, at last, gave me this opportunity to learn more about her work, and a very good excuse to sing her praises, at last.

The article, written by Mel Bezalel for the Jerusalem Post, must have been a real challenge to put together. Helena is so vibrant, so enthusiastic, has such a wealth of knowledge, and is so completely playful that it’s almost impossible to convey the breadth and depth of her delightful gifts.

The reporter notes: “Kling’s mantra is that ‘play is important for families’ and increasingly, this goes well and beyond childhood.” All the way to grandparenting. The reporter notes: “‘Buy something you like that you’d like to play with” is her recommendation, as parents and grandparents should be a part of the child’s play. This idea of a shared experience motivated Kling’s introduction of English storytelling at the center five years ago for grandparents and their grandchildren.”

Kling is outspoken and unafraid. Especially when it comes to educational games. “If it’s got ‘educational’ on the box,” she says, “don’t buy it…There is so much other stuff you can buy and have fun with, why have a piece of cardboard where a child throws dice and goes round a board and doesn’t get anywhere? Besides…’educational’ games are the first to be ejected from game collections.”

Helena Kling. Defender of the Playful.

Olga Jarrett

You remember my article Where have all the players gone. That was the last time I wrote about Olga Jarrett.

The last time I met Dr. Jarrett was in a hotel lobby in Atlanta. She brought an oscilloscope. One that she had made. Out of a can, a mirror, some rubber bands, and a toy laser-pointer. She was radiating delight, not just because her junk-built toy oscilloscope really and truly worked, but because of the sheer fun of it all. [Olga comments: “The “oscilloscope” was really mostly invented by Bob (my husband). I was looking for a way to show how sound vibrations can be shown as light and had picked up the idea somewhere to make an “oscilloscope” that could be used in the sun. But since I taught evening classes I was looking for something that could be used at night. Bob came up with the idea of attaching a laser. We really had fun making it and it is a great experience for my students. We also made them as Christmas presents for family and friends one year.”] And that moment of meeting her, was, more than any of her many accomplishments, what it finally took, maybe two years later, for me to recognize her as a true and genuine Defender of the Playful. Experiencing her unabashed playfulness was all I needed.

Here, from her manuscript “Drawing on the Child’s World: Science Made Relevant” is another example of how Olga plays:

“Science textbooks often emphasize such concepts as the parts of a flower, the difference between igneous, sedimentary and metaphoric rocks. Teachers instructing from such textbooks often stress vocabilary and facts…My first son failed a test on spiders without ever having looked at a spider in school…Make science relevant by drawing on the child’s experience. Encourage curiosity. Make learning challenging and fun, and children may be more likely to take elective science courses in high school.”

“Counting takes on new meaning when children count the spots on ladybugs to determine if they all have the same number…”

“(use) measuring sticks, thermometers, scales and timers (to) determine without guesswork who has he longest hair, how long a worm is when stretched out/scrunched up, how fast a pumpkin grows….” “see how many drops of water you can drip onto the face of a coin before it runs off. Then flip over the coin and try the other side.”

And here, from the Georgia State University, an all-too-abbreviated summary of her work`:

“Dr. Jarrett teaches science methods in the Early Childhood Education’s Urban Alternative Preparation Program. She is a University Fellow in the Urban Atlanta Coalition Compact, an Annenberg funded project whose purpose is excellence in education for African American students. She also serves as a project coordinator of Project DOVE (Drop-out, Violence Elimination), a systematic prevention/intervention program which includes mentoring and a curriculum on empathy, impulse control, and bully prevention. Dr. Jarrett’s research has focused on recess and playground behavior, bully prevention, effective teaching in urban schools, and effective methods of teaching science (pre-k to fifth grade). Her most recent research was published in School Science and Mathematics, and The Journal of Educational Research.”

Former president of The Association for the Study of Play, currently president of the American Association for the Child’s Right to Play (IPA/USA), U.S. affiliate of the International Play Association, Promoting the Child’s Right to Play, Dr. Jarrett is, in every sense of the word, a Defender of the Playful.

Garry Shirts – Defender of the Playful

I’ve known Garry Shirts for at least 35 years. I first became familiar with his presence in my particular universe when I was running the Games Preserve and writing for a rather esoteric publication called Simulation/Gaming/News.

When I was early in the process of gathering a rich enough collection of games to give people a direct experience of the scope of all things gameful, Garry was kind enough to send me two of his simulation games: BaFa’ BaFa’ and Star Power. These games added a playfully profound dimension to the entire collection and purpose of the Games Preserve. I and the people who came to play with me learned so much from experiencing each of these games – not only about a very important genre of games (now known as Serious Games), but also about the depth and truths that can be revealed in a well-designed invitation to reflective fun. So Garry became a valued resource and friend. And later, when I moved to California, even more valued.

Very recently, Garry happened to be in Indianapolis. He was here as part of a multi-leg tour, teaching his Ba’Fa Ba’Fa game to help people understand a little more about the underlying dynamics of diversity. He invited us (my wife and myself) to breakfast, and our meeting was delicious in every sense. I brought him a copy of Junkyard Sports, as a gift, a token, a tribute to our long-standing friendship. He thumbed through it for a few minutes, and then looked at me with such love and understanding, and said: “You know, Bernie, the person who learns the most from a game is the designer.” And in that one sentence summed up pretty much everything I’ve been teaching about games and play for the last 40 years.

This insight and understanding suddenly coalesced for me. I was able to put all those years of knowing him together, and give his remarkable presence in my life a title. Garry has been, and is, in every sense, a Defender of the Playful. He plays from the heart. He teaches from the heart. He is as wise as he is loving. His games have taught and touched the hearts of thousands of students and teachers and business leaders – vividly, playfully. His presence is a gift to all who receive it.

Brian Sutton-Smith – Defender of the Playful

Brian Sutton-Smith (shown here with a passel of his playful progeny) – the same guy who said: “The opposite of play is not work, it’s depression” – has been a friend of mine for 35-some years. I first came across his name in a book called The Study of Games that he and Elliot Avedon had co-authored. I was at the time working on my Interplay Games Curriculum, and was in the heat of searching for everything I could find out about games and the study thereof, and this particular book turned out to be a godsend. The next godsend occurred a few years later when I discovered that he was teaching at the University of Pennsylvania. I don’t remember exactly what the next steps were, but for several years he brought his classes to my play study retreat center, the Games Preserve, and he, his students and I shared some wonderfully deep play together.


Dr. Brian Sutton Smith, author of The Ambiguity of Play, Professor Emeritus of the University of Pennsylvania where he taught in the Graduate School of Education and the Program of Folklore and Folklife, had this to say about himself:

“first of all I don’t consider myself just an academic. I have reached that point in life where my initial pretenses of being a scholar and of being impersonal no longer serve as a convincing dis guise for myself. I’ve come to believe that a central issue in understanding life or social science or gaining wis dom about anything that is significant is to determine the way in which one’s own internal narrative interacts with their personal scholarship. In New Zealand where I was born, I was deeply influenced by my aggressive and physically active older brother into considering play largely as a matter of power. My father was the Wellington chief postmaster who longed to be a university professor and was active as a storyteller and amateur actor. From him I got my academic interests in drama and in stories. These individuals certainly have influenced much of my life. I wish it was sufficient simply to announce that I have been persistently interested in play and that I think it’s important.” (from an interview with Dr Stuart Brown).

Dr. Brian Sutton-Smith, “…persistently interested in play and…its importan(ce),” Defender of the Playful.

Reb Zalman

I met Zalman more than 30 years ago. We have been friends ever since that first meeting. Deep friends. Sharing with each other our most profound insights, and our equally profound laughter.

Of all the people I’ve known who have had a positive influence on religion – any religion – Reb Zalman has been one of very few who has been a voice for playfulness as much as a voice for spirituality. With Zalman, there really is no difference. His playfulness has helped thousands of people to reclaim their spirituality, renew their connection with religion, and redefine both. He has gone far beyond Judaism, making connections between spiritual disciplines of every religion he can touch. And his touch is as light as it is enlightening. He brings love and laughter to all those who hear him. When he leads people in prayer, he also leads them in dance and song and an ever-deepening joy.

It is not an easy path he has chosen for himself. Zalman is widely known as a champion of silliness. Religious people tend to take things very seriously. So, for many, he is seen as a threat. Virtually unsupported by the establishment, he has found his own support. His laughter draws followers. His faith sustains them. His playfulness heals them. Instead of denying the forces that have denied him, he affirms those very traditions, and goes at least one step further. He embraces the best in all traditions, he celebrates the deep fun of each, and the deeper delight that exists between them.
Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Defender of the Playful.

Improv Everywhere – Defenders of the Playful

If you’ve been watching any of the many well-documented, pervasive play antics of Improv Everywhere, you’ll understand why they are being presented with the coveted title of Defender of the Playful. You may even, given such spectacular displays of in-your-face playfulness as in the Frozen Grand Central and Food Court Musical events, wonder why it took us so long to acknowledge their contribution to playfulness anywhere. Clearly, they are breaking boundaries, bringing play where no play has dared to go. And their MP3 Experiments are as least as fun and surprising and play-engendering for the participants as they are enticingly puzzling for their unsuspecting audiences.

But for me, it wasn’t until their most recent mission, the Surprise Wedding Reception, that Improv Everywhere demonstrated the kind of playfulness that the award was created for. Take a look at one of their most celebrated, and closely related events, called “The Best Game Ever.” This, too, was a surprise, and it most definitely led to the delight of everyone involved, players and performers. But unlike The Best Game Ever, the couple who served as the focus of the Surprise Wedding Reception were not so much surprised as they were invited to play. Though the host wasn’t above the minor subterfuge of passing himself as a representative of the Mayor’s Office, and describing the event as a “free wedding reception,” this enlightened willingness to include everyone, the receivers as well as the givers of the performance, led to something that seemed to me much more inclusive, and, because of that, much more of an accomplishment for all playkind.

from Bernie DeKoven, funsmith

The Grass Stain Guru – Defender of the Playful

Read, for example, this blog post describing 10 More Can’t Miss Childhood Moments. Then read the Ode to Dirty Sneakers. And then Kids Choice: Self-Directed Play. Then go on to read this entire gem of a blog. Then you’ll understand ever so incontrovertibly clearly why Bruce Williamson nominated Bethe Almeras to join the much-honored ranks of Defenders of the Playful.

Dr. Peter Gray, Defender of the Playful

In a previous post, I cited an article by Dr. Peter Gray, who writes a blog called Freedom to Learn, published by Psychology Today. After a brief, friendly exchange of emails, Dr. Gray agreed to share his entire paper Leisure Play is Important for Human Collaboration with us. You can download it here.

Coincidentally, his blog currently features an article of similar noteworthiness called “Social Play and the Genesis of Democracy,” in which he writes:

“Children cannot acquire democratic values through activities run autocratically by adults. They can and do, however, experience and acquire such values in free play with other children. That is a setting where they are treated as equals, where they must have a say in what goes on, and where they must respect the rights of others if they wish to be included.”

Clearly we have found yet another Defender of the Playful.

from Bernie DeKoven, funsmith

The A-Z of Playfulness

This cow was brought to you courtesy of a site once known as BePlayful.org. It lived on a page devoted to the A to Z of Playfulness. Here is a taste of this significantly playful pith:

angels, n. ordinary people
creativity, n. being yourself
danger, n. boredom, blind habit, addiction, workaholism
happiness, n. gratitude for being alive
laughter, n. the noise of a person fully alive
magic, n. reality

This most playworthy site is written by David.

“David is a part-time student, part-time freelance writer, part-time peace activist, and full-time play maker.

“He is married to a beautiful lady called Siona, hasn’t eaten meat for three years (except for one minor disaster in a kebab shop), and rides a folding bicycle.

“David can be followed on Twitter, Stumbled on Stumbleupon, Dugg on Digg, and photographed on Flickr.” His calls his blog Truant Pen.

David is also hereby and forthwith granted the right to be known as: “Defender of the Playful”

from Bernie DeKoven, funsmith

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