The only thing that play prepares the child for is more play. – Brian Sutton-Smith
As children, we are socialized as well as enculturalized through early games and play. Both encompass the cultural learning process of children. Thus, every individual has social relationships with play and playful objects. However, as adults, we are socialized for obedience, responsibility, and self-reliance.
Why must play only be corralled within the confines of the home? Why can we not carry our emotional support toys in our tote bags, talk to our imaginary friends on the way to work, or wear our stuffies on our hoodies?
Some designers, which I will discuss below, have provoked these questions. Design holds the capacity to instill a sense of play into our lives within spaces and contexts that are seemingly not playful.
To my great amusement, in early 2021, Louis Vuitton debuted a new collection featuring three jackets and a hoodie bedizened with colorful crochet puppets. The polychromatic group of puppets included a frog, monkey, flamingo, dragon, panda, mouse, scorpion as well as some indistinguishable creatures of unknown origin. Most of the puppets hung out towards one side of the hoodie awaiting their puppeteer.
Play vs. Posh: An Unfavorable Cultural Reaction
While cultural reaction to the clothing–as well as its price tag–has been understandably unfavorable, there is something to be said about wearing your toys on your body. The clothing was ridiculed as childish, unnecessary, and bizarre. More importantly, many seemed to have disdain for play in their adulthood. The puppets were perceived as children’s playthings, clownish distractions, or child-like representations of abandoned pandemic crafting projects. Playful aspects of fashion are often glossed over and considered not serious enough. They are perceived as diametrically opposed to hoity-toity couture, posh fashion, and serious adulthood.
Play vs. Pillow Pets: Squishmallows and COVID-19
Similar phenomena, such as the pandemic era’s perpetuated hoarding of Squishmallows, has imposed a stockpiling of the mass-produced huggable egg-shaped toys. An imposed scarcity of the plushies has given rise to treasure hunts and quests across dozens of stores in search of seemingly coveted characters. Squishmallow content is compared to past frenzy relating to beanie babies, Webkinz, or hatchimals.
A Seemingly Harmless Reaction
“Collectors say the stuffed animals have given them comfort in a painful year, and that hunting for them has fostered a much-needed sense of community during an extended period of isolation” . While collecting the toys has remained cost-effective, dozens of online sellers now appear to be scalping prices of Squishmallows. Squishmallow-related rhetoric appears to be invading zoom classes, subreddits, and other online spaces. Roleplay involving giving the characters names, pronouns, and personalities has kept adults playful during the pandemic.
Knits, Weddings, and Disneyland
Recalling Lady gaga’s attempt at social commentary via a Kermit the frog muppet toy dress or how flower girls are now beginning to carry toys down the aisle to ease anxiety, Ýr Jóhannsdóttir, a textile designer and artist from Iceland has created work that is mostly knitted, where body parts and the everyday, meet through wearable objects. She claims to have “a fascination with the squishier, more interesting parts of the human body”. Ýrúrarí uses knitted body parts to give clothes a character of their own. Recently, Disneyland–a space we are in fact encouraged to play in–released a magnetic Porg that clips onto one’s shoulder. Further the Campana brothers, insist that playful apholstry had the potential to connect with childhood memories thus bringing smiles to many faces.
So, Why Are We Talking About Play?
Play permits children as well as adults to imagine themselves in various social roles–both real and imagined. Playing with toys offers them an opportunity to assume roles but also form relationships with others. Most play occurs in childhood with a small percentage of adults confining play to their bedroom-cuddle toys, dog toys, and the occasional board-game night.
Play during the pandemic has meant different things to varied groups of people. What remains a constant is its ability to be pliable. It has crossed over into fields of education, textiles, and fashion but also in everyday spaces such as our homes and everyday garb.
How Can we Reconceptualize Play?
Given how play has (and will continue to) form such a big part of children’s lives as well as how it has made its way into adult lives (especially during COVID-19), perhaps there is merit in inviting play into other experiences. Thus I offer some provocations below-
- How can you incorporate play into your everyday design and spaces?
- In what other seemingly non-playful contexts do you see play taking place?
- What are some ways of playing that you developed during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Lorenz, T (2021, March,16). Squishmallows Are Taking Over. The New York Times. https://www-nytimes-com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/2021/03/16/style/squishmallows.html
Lucero, J. (2018). A paused point: The most serious thing I do is play. TRENDS: The Journal of the Texas Art Education Association, 50-54.
Sutton-Smith, B., & Pellegrini, A. D. (1995). The Future of Play Theory. Albany: State U of New York P.