Play. When did I last engage in that?


by Suzanne Bishaw

Play is one of the main ways in which children learn. Walk into any preschool and you’ll find toddling superheroes battling imaginary monsters. We take it for granted that young children play and, especially, pretend. Where does pretending come into play? Well according to Alison Gopnik from the Smithsonian Magazine and the University of California at Berkley, it relates to what philosophers’ call “counterfactual” thinking, like Einstein wondering what would happen if a train went at the speed of light.

When I was a child I remember playing, but I am having difficulty remembering the last time I actually played. My very beautiful gifted friend has asked me to write about play. Play, I thought, well that should be easy and yet here I sit wondering what to write. I decided to set out on a quest to try to remember this concept of play. As I write that word quest I realise that this does feel like a “long arduous search for something”. Searching, seeking out the essence of play and playfulness.

My quest for financial security beyond retirement has resulted in living abroad in a country that is unique and very interesting. I mean after all, the movie Sex in the City 2 was reported to have been filmed in Abu Dhabi where I live but actually filmed in the Morocco (sand: check; Arabs: check). The official plot synopsis calls the Emirates, “one of the most luxurious, exotic and vivid places on earth, where the party never ends and there’s something mysterious around every corner”. In reality and this should not come as a shock, but this is all pretend. Now if I am pretending that my life in the UAE is full of vivid colours and one of the most exotic places on earth, am I “playing”?

When I sit back and remember the times I played, I remember many scenes of innocence and at my age I long for those times again. Recently, I was chatting with my very beautiful and gifted friend who I have known since we were both 10 years old. We were chatting, and she said something about us now being in our late fifties, and I corrected her because I actually thought for a nanosecond that I was only 54!! Seriously, 54 sounds better than 56, doesn’t it?

In the Emirates the majority of the people are here voluntarily to work, with less than 20% of the population being locals the only other way you can live in this country is if you are gainfully employed. Interestingly you cannot stay in this country as an expat if you are 60years old You must get an exemption and then your visa is extended every 12months on a needs basis. All of a sudden you become too much of a burden or risk for the country and a younger “you” is brought in to replace you. Many of the expats will tell you, “we’re all here for the money, right”. The importance of money in my life is similar to the importance of food for the body. Just like I can't live even for a few days without food, I can't survive for long without money. I am looking forward to the day I do not need to work for money and I can explore that part of life that should be easier, so I cannot wait to be 60 some days.

Where did the playfulness in life go? Is it because I do not have grandchildren to vicariously play through? Is it because I am now in my late 50’s! In my quest for finding meaning in play for Mouthful Magazine I realised that I have played much and still play. In 1973 and 1974 I was attending one of the most progressive primary schools in Australia.  There was no curriculum, no structure and no classrooms. We could come to school on any days from Monday to Saturday. Yes, even Saturday, and I loved school so much I went to school 6 days a week. My very beautiful, gifted friend at that time, Christina (owner and editor of Mouthful Mag) was my best friend. She knew how to play. Her family were all very artistic and compared to my family ‘outrageously out-there”, but I loved being part of this family.

In primary school we spent most of our time, learning through play. We were allowed to put on a play for the school, we danced and sang, and Christina not only choreographed the whole event, but she leads us all into this terrifying, amazingly fantastic adventure that lives with me still. And she still is!!! The terrifying event of trying to remember what play is about.

In psychology and ethology, play is a range of voluntary, intrinsically motivated activities normally associated with recreational pleasure and enjoyment. When I found this, I sat back and realised that life as an expat is full of play. Instead of looking for the moment, make the moment yours. I am intrinsically motivated to get up every day and find pleasure and enjoyment in my life. Its finding those small gifts that come to you like the beautiful child dressed in his kandura (the local dress for males) who spoke to me at the service station while we waited in line to pay for our purchases. He was probably 8 years old, and as he looked me up and down he asked me where I was going. I replied, “Abu Dhabi”. “Where are you going?”, I asked.

His face lit up and he said with true excitement on his face, “to the desert”. I smiled and said “Ma’salama” which is goodbye in Arabic and walked out, got back into my car and drove through the desert, smiling because there is nothing but desert here!!