Learning to Play…Again: Engaging Creatively, Leading Imaginatively


As adults who live in urban, high-pressure and fast-changing contexts, what would we gain if we spent more time at play? On 23 October 2019, Asst Prof Charlene Rajendran from the Visual and Performing Arts Academic Group, National Institute of Education, NTU, examined the dynamics of play, with particular reference to the arts as a creative platform. She suggested that a lucid sensibility contributes to the development of vibrant and innovative individuals and communities.

Play, particularly through theatre, is highly dialogic and depends on who the participants are and their need to work together. It especially requires a willingness to play. Dr Rajendran is particularly interested in theatre as play-based dialogue. Play offers a kind of social and pedagogical space to explore and enhance empathy, deepen insight, strengthen collaboration and sharpen listening skills. Theatre deals with what it means to be human, and when we play, we become a little more humanised.

Play should not be seen as a task to be accomplished and be successful in since it cannot be considered as play if the player has to always win. It is a mode of being rather than doing, and can thus apply to many things, especially in deep play. Play can be player-centric not just play-centred, so it is about what the players wants to do. They decide what they find stimulating even if it involves hard work, like preparing meals for a large group or repairing computers. Ultimately the players engage with themselves, or other people.

Since play is part of being human, being deprived of it has consequences. Dr Rajendran cited a study by Stuart Brown, who found that play is crucial to normal development and that we are, in fact, designed to play for life. Therefore, the opposite of play is not work, it is depression. The loss of a sense of irony and adaptability that can be gained through play are contributing factors to stress. The more we are adaptable to change, the better we can cope with life.

Elastic thinking can be developed through play and daydreaming, as ideas flow freely and the brain imagines possibilities, rather than just solve problems. After all, the purpose of play should be play, and making something happen through the sheer pleasure of it.

Play helps us connect without feeling threatened, anxious and fearful of difference, and makes us willing to try new things. Immersive, deep play helps us exceed our limits as we connect with something beyond us. Such an extraordinary experience enriches the everyday by developing a strength in struggle without losing a sense of purpose and pleasure.

Singapore’s education reform policies in the past decade shows an emphasis in developing students to become better human beings. As adults, teachers can encourage this shift to learning together by inspiring engagement rather than imposing outcomes.

For a pragmatic society, it can have a crucial role in innovation and progress. History has shown that inventions emerged from play and daydreaming. This happens not just from playing freely but also in harnessing play in a disciplined manner to experiment. As Singapore playwright Kuo Pao Kun said, “A worthy failure is more valuable than a mediocre success”.

Through creative engagement, arts-based approaches are used to get participants involved and thinking about an issue or idea. It is dialogic and different points of view matter. Dr Rajendran used the “Happy Coffins” project in Singapore to illustrate how the conversations between designer and residents removed the taboo of death through the creation of quirky artworks. It showed how the process was laced with a sense of humour achieved through play among the participants involved.

The infusion of play into our daily lives will hopefully lead to a shift to Kongsi culture (“share” in Malay), that encourages concern for others. At the end of the day, we look towards being better humans and better givers who want to inculcate a more generous, emphatic spirit. Because when we play, we give of ourselves.

The event ended with Dr Rajendran addressing questions from the audience, which included whether it is possible to systematically learn through play, if there are successful cases of play in the profit-chasing corporate world, and how play can be more widely considered as valuable in a pragmatic society like Singapore.

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