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Playing by Heart
by O. Fred Donaldson, Ph.D.

Fred is the author of Playing by Heart and a play specialist internationally recognized for his ongoing research and use of play with children and animals


As a culture, we have been competitive for a long time. What is the duchess game and why does it represent the foundation of our culture?

The duchess game, from Alice and Wonderland, say that the more of something I have, the less you have. It says all the things we value; prestige, awards, money, love are limited, which means we have to compete for them. Because of this fundamental error, we believe that play is there to compete for limited goods. If the things we value were unlimited, all our energy could be focused on play itself and not on the things you have to do to make sure you wind and the other person doesn't.

Is our entire culture based on competition, comparison and contest?

We make a bargain with our children very early. We say to the child, "you give up the original state of belonging that you know as an infant, and I will provide for you the goods of the culture." At that age we have no choice, so we accept the bargain and it seems appropriate. We start to buy into those rewards and never realize that they can never give us what we gave up. We get trapped, thinking if I just win more, if I just get more stuff, I will feel the sense of belonging and wholeness I once felt. The whole culture feeds this feeling of not having enough yet.

Ultimately we find out that culture games can never meet the needs of our original belonging. It is not just belonging to family or team or a country, but belonging to life itself. That takes a huge sense of safety and love that the contests don't provide. But we're never told the truth about this.

You talk about contest as an addiction, that the sense of defending one's self becomes the primary addition which is satisfied through secondary addictions. Let's go into that.

Once you've lost that original sense of belonging to life itself, and you're put out there essentially alone and told you need these little belongings, you end up doing the things necessary to keep those boundaries secure. Whether it's family, a gang, a team, they hook you into doing the things they support in order to keep you as a member. Membership becomes exceedingly important and you are valuable only as long as you're a member. You are in, only as long as you abide by our terms and continue to pay allegiance to us. Once you stop, you're not a member anymore.

We're never told that there is a membership outside the cultural memberships. We knew that in our original belonging and that's what play helps us find again. We assume that life comes with no structure and if we don't put one there, everything falls apart. Play has taught me that life comes with its own pattern. That pattern is a sense of belonging that's immensely powerful. Not believing in that however, we go for the frosting, the illusions of prestige, money and so on. Once hooked into that, it's extremely difficult to let go.

The price we pay is the need to endlessly defend against all forms of assaults, real and imagined.

Once we assume that our real self is dependent upon the goods, the services, and prestige, we loose control of our original sense of value and well-being. We become attached to the cultural image. Our connection to people is defined by what they offer us. Children have little value, for example. They aren't the coinage of the realm. It is the same for women, for minority groups, and for me and you as an individual. Once I am cut off and become attached to things out there, I loose touch with my true value. I don't know what safe means because safe has always been these other things, a big home, a car, money and fame.

Women, minorities and children have little value in a contest culture. Help me understand this.

Girls were of no value to me when I was 8 and 10 and starting to play baseball. I would pass their homes and go to the guy next door. It could be that the girls played baseball very well, but I was conditioned with the idea that girls don't play baseball, so I excluded all of them. I excluded one special needs boy on our block because he couldn't play ball.

As we become involved in the contests which bring rewards, we look at individuals and groups of people the same way a little boy looks at girls. We only see and value those who can enhance our participation as a player. In this culture, blacks, Hispanics, women and children have been designed out of the contest. If my goad is to win, I only want to associate with people who can help me win. We don't know how to value people for anything other than their status as a player in the game.

Competition is the way of life in this culture and it has been that way for hundreds of years. Getting out of that model, or at least recognizing the inherent violence and aggression built into that model is challenging.

We assumed the only way to survive is by contest and we just go along with it. Everyone is compared to the other. It runs the family, the school, business, the military, gangs, all of them function on the basis of survival. More for me, less for you. As long as the entire culture functions that way, there's no way out for many of us.

Parents will say, "What do you want me to do? My child has to compete." I've had CEO's say, "I have to fire them. What else is there to do? I have to save the company." Gang members say the same thing. "I had to kill to be a member." Membership assumes an outside that I need to defend myself against. When you add up the number of outsiders, it's no wonder that we don't all end up in mental institutions. We are in a contest with the entire world.

Most people have to lose in a contest culture but we don't tell anybody that. Not being a winner in a culture that only values winners, builds up aggression day in and day out. There's also an issue of kindness that we are not honest about. Somewhere along the line things change from sharing to not sharing and we aren't honest about this. We don't say, "remember that sharing I told you about in pre-school, well, now in first grade we don't do that anymore. Now it's winning that counts. Forget the sharing stuff." Deep down we know what we are doing when we take away the safety and love and give them stuff instead.

I will be negligent as a parent if I don't teach my child to stand up for him or herself, to take the hand knocks, to hear the ropes and make it to the top.

The parent is part of his or her peer group hierarchy and it extends directly to the children. Each of us become like knots in a fishing net. You're going to be a failure if you don't compete in your religion, in your job, in your marriage, in your child rearing, in the car and home - and we pass this on to our children.

That incredibly resilient, flexible, creative being, who can use intelligence to explore the unknown becomes trapped. Our creative intelligence becomes focused on not failing and there is nothing left to explore the unknown. Risking anything new becomes to tough. Whether we are a 7 or 8 year old worried about how we look or the man or woman who is caught in a horrible job. We are trapped and the contest structure does not allow us to step out.

There is an illusion that the culture likes us. But when we stop winning, as certain athletes and stars have discovered, we find that the culture never liked us for who we really are.

That was an illusion. What they like is the illusion of being a winner. Who inhabits this position is totally irrelevant.

The contest teaches me to devalue people as individuals. What I do to them makes little difference as long as I keep winning. I can fire them. I can shoot them. What difference does it make?

The point we often miss is that in devaluing the other, I become devalued as well. A little bit of myself has been killed off and you loose connection with that sense of , "I'm valuable just because I am." My value now comes from the contest.

The material goods, the stuff, the money, fame, prestige drives the economy. Our economy is really based on fear, on substituting material goods for this integral sense of self. From this we develop a self perception that needs the stuff in order to feel whole, which drives the economy. This creates tremendous pressure to continue the contest.

I've thought about this a lot. I've worried about it and at times even cried about it. I have said to myself, Fred, this is really stupid. Go back to being a University Professor, buy another Porsche. Then I think about Christ in the Bible when he says "go to the children." Why did he say that? Was that just a metaphor? I've read other sages who have said the same thing but they never say why and as a race, we have never done what these wise men and women have told us to do. It finally downed on me, they are pointing to this sense of belonging. The reason they don't tell us why is because they can't. You must feel it and when you do, you don't need to be told.

Play implies being safe. That is the central issue.

When I play with gang members, I don't tell them not to be gang members. What I say is, "I want you to be safer on the streets." Literally I'm using play as the best self-defense there is. We think that contest is the best way to survive, the fight or flight idea. What I say to gang members is that there is a safer way, safer than fight/flight. And that's play.

Going out onto the street as a playmate means that there's less chance that the young man is going to reach for a gun, which means there's less chance that a 2 year old is going to get shot. In a very practical, real, tangible way, I present play as a way to keep humans safer, whether it's in a corporate office, with gangs on the street or in a classroom. Once we're safer, we don't need to defend ourselves. If I don't need to defend myself, then you don't need to defend yourself. Now we can focus our energy in much more creative ways. It's much easier to communicate, to love, to be kind and do all those things that we'd really rather do. Play begins when we feel safe.

In your book, a young boy made the statement "play is when I recognize that we're not different."

Play provides a way for us to slide between the categories in which we live. In that magical time/space, which is play, we're not members of any category. We aren't men or women, white or black, American of South Africans. That's the genius of play, not to be limited by all the categories.

Once you experience play and then find yourself back in being male, white, and all the other cultural labels, you realize that here is an experience that can take you beyond all the cultural limitations you have accepted about yourself. You discover that there is a way to slide between all of the frames the culture has imposed.

You made the observation that children have a hard time playing in the shadow of adults.

Not only in the psychological space not there, but as competitors, we don't know how to design the physical spaces for children to really play.

Why is it that children, who innately play, have such a difficult time playing in the shadow of adults?


The physical and psychological space we provide doesn't allow for what I call original play. Our interpretation of what play is, has re-defined play itself.

Adult playing spaces have white lines, they people called referees and time outs. In original play you don't need people running around saying time-out. People who only play under a system of artificial time-outs don't know how to regulate their own sense of play. I'm always taking time-outs based on some adult's whistle. It is important to keep in mind that adults don't value play. It is something that happens after the important things are done. Then we send children out to some artificial space that we think is for play, and we call it recess.

Have you ever taken a good look at the so called play spaces adults have created. The people who design them never play in them. In Southern California, where the summer temperature reaches 90 and 100 degrees, we have schools with metal slides. How can this happen? Not only do adults design them, other adults put them on playgrounds and still others bring their kids to them.
The equipment of toys define play and adults stand around like prison guards. "No you can not go down the slide head first." Most adults are not concerned with expansive learning. The are only interested in not getting caught in a law suit, which is another contest. So, the child asks, "where am I supposed to play?"

Schools are caught in the contest, which is connected to law and then the contest decides how children are going to play. This impacts. Very tangibly what a teacher does. Am I going to be sued because they were playing ball and running through a space where other kids were sitting? So there's no ball playing. And the kids then are left with virtually nothing to do.

So they begin to nudge each other and say well okay, I'll play with you. What does that mean? How am I supposed to play with you? I don't know. The only thing I've done with anything is collide. This must mean I'm supposed to collide with you. So you get collision, punches, kicks, and teachers say no, we can't touch, again because they might get sued. It's very uncomfortable for children and for adults because the original nature of play has become so distorted.

One of the tragedies is that we're afraid of a system that isn't even there, so the best thing to do is just stand still. I've been on playgrounds all over the world and teachers often remind me of crows sitting up on lines, looking down at kids wandering around below. Or they remind me of prison guards. The whole function has been to separate themselves as a guardian and once you abstract that role your whole focus becomes essentially fear. Don't let kids get hurt. Don't let them get taken. All the processes are defined by our fears of engagement in contests.

Because of that fear, we narrow the possibilities of childhood tremendously. What have we substituted for original play in our culture?

We call it games which means something that is not very serious. It's the time left over. The problem is that those activities have become encompassed by the idea of competition. Play has become as serious as going to law school, doing mathematics and the other subjects in the school.

I can remember living on the coast and I thought, "I'm out here surfing every day, let's try playing volleyball with the people who play volleyball every day." I went up to a group of men and said, "Can I join you?" They were reluctant but let me in. In an hour I never touched the ball. They were that good at excluding me from the activity, which is what competitive play begins to do. It became very clear that I wasn't a member. The competition is intense and all starts when we substitute original play for competitive games on the playground.

The kids who are heavy don't get to play. The kids who can't hear, can't see, can't move, they all get excluded and were taught that exclusion is okay. As long as the rules are defined for me to win, whoever I exclude is all right. The process begins very early.

The pressure to win never goes away. This implies that anything it takes to win is okay. Help me understand why cheating and aggression, whatever it takes to win, is the hidden foundation of our culture.

Once you decide that you can devalue or exclude someone, and you can do anything to them necessary to win, then what you do and how you do it is based on the tools at hand. We will say at the little league level that it's not okay to go over and beat up the person on the other side. But it is okay to slide into a base in such a way that knocks them over.

As you step up it becomes okay to slide in such a way that might hurt the other person. Look at what happened and the Winter Olympics.

We have this unspoken notion that levels of violence and aggression in any activity are graded. We don't allow the 2 year old to beat up his 1 year old brother when he takes his truck away. At a certain age we're going to say defend yourself. What does that mean? It means if they hit you, hit them back. Does it mean pull out a gun and shoot them? No. But at another level we say yes, it does mean that. It means shoot them if that's what it takes to defend yourself. Once I'm disconnected, what I do to them doesn't make much difference. I do whatever it takes.

Is the aggression and violence in our culture going up? Do we have any choice?

The contest culture doesn't provide a choice. There's no time-out. I remember a hockey player that decided he wasn't going to participate in a fight and he was asked to leave the team. This required great courage on his part but the team could not tolerate that. For the team to say you're right, we don't need to do this, calls into the question the very essence of the team. Most humans are not ready to do this. Their identity is attached to membership to the team. If we're not a team than what happens to the game? What happens to me? They're held together by the contest net and we don't know what to do when someone steps outside. We lack this courage because the contest has become more than a material net, it is also deeply physiological.

To say no to what membership in the team requires appears almost life threatening. It's no different in a corporate office, when someone is cutting 50% of the employees, or a gang that says that to be a member you need to go out there and hurt somebody and most of us go do it. That's the allegiance. That's membership and we literally cannot conceive of another way of being.

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