chapter  2
12 Pages

All the world’s a stage: childhood and the play of being


Play may be considered as a particular kind of activity, distinct, say, from work. Or it may be considered as a fundamental element of human being; that is, as expressed in some way in any particular activity. While these two senses of play are obviously related, it is this latter sense that I wish to focus on here. Call it an ‘ontological’ examination of play as a mode of ontos or ‘being’. Such an exploration is not historically new; indeed, it has a long history and, as we will see, has intensified over the past century particularly in phenomenological philosophy. My own contribution is to explore the ontology of play in light of the play experiences of children. You would expect to be able to learn a great deal about play from the one-third of humanity who are under the age of eighteen. In fact, contemporary philosophies of play tend to be based narrowly (if without always acknowledging it) on the experiences only of adults. Using an approach that I call ‘childism’, which I will say more about below, I wish to look not at how conceptions of play may be applied to children, but instead at how the experiences of children may be applied to conceptions of play. If philosophy is on some level about questioning assumptions, then considering the often marginalized perspectives of the young should be one of its most important practices. In what follows, I first outline what I mean by childism, then examine three broad ways in which childhood has had an impact on philosophies of play throughout Western history, and finally use postmodern resources to develop a more fully childist and hence more fully human understanding of play. My chapter title, ‘All the world’s a stage’, comes from the melancholy Jaques in William Shakespeare’s play As You Like It. It is a sigh of lament at life’s meaninglessness (Shakespeare 1951: 266). Can the experiences of children suggest, on the contrary, that the play of existence is precisely what makes life meaningful?