In human cultures, we value aesthetics for their own sake — for the pleasure to be derived from creating new aesthetic combinations and from experiencing those of others. But from the perspective of an organism, aesthetics are just a signal, a means to an end. Color, texture, form — these things are not important in themselves, but in that they indicate a happening that might be relevant for our survival. A flash of yellow on a rainy day is an aesthetic signal of an approaching taxi that may provide shelter and transportation. A yeasty aroma on a side street is a signal of freshly baked bread that might provide relief from hunger. A shiny reflection on a matte concrete bench is a signal of wetness — it could be a spilled drink, or worse, but in any case it’s an indication of a spot that might not be so nice to sit on. Yellow, yeast, and wetness have no intrinsic value to us, except for what they tell us to approach and to avoid.
I mention this because too often we think about aesthetics as static attributes, when actually they are evidence of a world constantly in motion. And play at its very root is about motion: the physicality of interaction, the gestures of discovery, the spin/slide/run/jump/pull/push of a body testing the limits of its freedom. This is why I wrote in yesterday’s post on free play that the aesthetics of play can’t be simplified down to a color palette and some out-of-scale, toy-like properties. The aesthetics of play are signals of something much deeper. They are sensory manifestations of the very essence of what it means to play.
So what are the aesthetics of play and how do they relate to this essence? I’m going to unpack this idea over several posts, starting with today and the idea of roundness.
Many of the most essential playful objects are circular or spherical: balls, hula hoops, spinning tops, marbles, balloons. This is no accident. Play starts with childhood and the child’s need to explore the world around her and understand the capabilities of her own body. Play at its root is about testing basic principles like gravity, momentum, and cause and effect. To do this, a child needs to interact with objects, and interaction requires contact. Contact has the potential for playful reward, but it also has the potential for danger, and so we gravitate towards non-threatening objects, ones without the sharp corners or rough edges that might hurt us.
Roundness is a primary signal that an object is safe, and therefore a key element of the aesthetics of play. Within this broader idea, there are shades of gray. The perfectly neutral curves of spheres and circles are safest. They’re also the most predictable in the way they behave, allowing us to anticipate and react to their movements. (Contrast the bouncing of a perfectly round ball with a misshapen one, and you’ll see what I mean.) Other gentle curves have a similarly playful feel, one that gets lost when the curves get too slick and fast. Many toys exhibit this principle. Toy cars designed for very young children are often bubbly and round, while older children crave more realistic, sleeker versions.
Roundness also applies to the motion of play. In other words, we don’t just play with round things, but we make ourselves round when we play. In a 2008 NYT article called “Taking Play Seriously,” the head of the National Institute for Play, Stuart Brown, said, “Play movement is curvilinear. If that boy was reaching for something in a nonplay situation, his body would be all straight lines. But using the body language of play, he curves and embraces.” The curvilinear movement is an instinctual behavior that serves to let others know that our behavior is non-threatening. But rounded movements and gestures also feel pleasurable and safe to ourselves. Perhaps this is why so many large-scale playthings move in rounded ways: the merry-go-round, the ferris wheel, and the swingset, for example.
Roundness itself does not constitute playfulness. But roundness is an aesthetic of play when it represents an invitation to interaction. I’ll talk more about the quality of that interaction in my next post, and its implications for other aesthetics of play.