Coming Out To Play

by Guest blogger on October 4, 2011

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“I bless you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for hiding these things from the learned and the clever and revealing them to the little children.” Jesus

A newspaper reporter once wrote that, “Fred Donaldson never has a hard day at work. All he does is play around.” The reporter expresses a common misunderstanding of children’s play. We think of children’s play as nothing more than child’s play. I was no different. This dramatically changed one day when I was tugged to the ground by children. I began to see play not as an adult observer, but as a participant.

One day I was lying on a grass hill with five-year-old David watching clouds float by. As we looked up he said, “Fred, you know play is when we don’t know that we are different from each other.” It is sometimes the case that a child says something that takes your breath away and momentarily stops your thinking. David looked at me with one of those knowing smiles that communicates his wisdom without words.

What is it that David knew? He knew that the play I was learning from the children was something very special. It wasn’t about fun, entertainment, or sport. It was a gift allowing us to transcend the limits of cultural, social, and medical differences that we think are so important. David understood that play touches that which is profoundly alive in one person to that which is most profoundly alive in another.

Let me back up for a moment. I didn’t come to children’s play as a knowledgeable professional. I am trained as a university professor; I have Masters and Ph.D. degrees in Geography. After a number of years I left university teaching because I wanted to be with people who shared learning. I thought the best place would be pre-school. But I had no experience with children.

A friend told me about a school that he thought I should visit. I went to see the Director. He gave me a trial job as a teacher’s aide. It only lasted a week. I didn’t take directions well. He called me in and said, “Fred, this isn’t working out. We like you, but what can you do?” I didn’t know. Suddenly, I blurted out, “I’ll be a special teacher in play and exploration.” Before he could think he replied, “OK, do that.” Then we looked at each other wondering what we had just agreed to. Neither of us knew, but I had a new job.

I came to school the next day, got on the ground and my play training began in earnest. Children were my mentors; they expected a lot of me. I had to get down, pay attention, be quiet, stop thinking, and stay in touch. My ground time was not easy; it required a mental toughness and physical agility I had long forgotten. I went home each day and soaked in a bath of Epsom salts.

Playing day after day I began to notice patterns in the children’s play. Three patterns showed up immediately–eye contact, touch, and no-contest. Of the three the no-contest pattern was the hardest for me to understand. This meant that each day the children’s play had no winners or losers, no blame, no fault, and no revenge. I didn’t think this was possible. Everything I knew was based on contest behavior. I needed to find out if this was merely a quirk of these particular kids or was the pattern larger. Living in San Diego at the time I went to Tijuana and sought out kids on the streets or in parks. I would go to them on my hands and knees just as I did with the kids in school. Just as in my school there was no talking. Immediately, the street kids jumped on me and began to play with no aggression.

This seemed very strange to me. I returned to San Diego and began to play with all kinds of children—special needs, normal, and gang kids. They all played the same. A child with autism plays the same way as a normal child. A street kid in Mexico plays just like a normal child in suburban San Diego. This is the pattern of kindness that David told me about.

For forty years I have played with tens of thousands of children around the world and the pattern that David understood holds true. I call this pattern Original Play because it is a gift from Creation, not an artifact of culture. In their original play children remind me that unity lies at the heart of life. Before children tugged and pulled me to the ground I had never taken children’s play seriously. I assumed, like other adults, that child’s play was nothing more than random acts of childishness, at best merely for entertainment value. I could not have been more wrong.

Sometimes children break into my life with shattering impact, tearing open a gash in the hard worked fabric of adulthood and liberating my spirit. As one five year boy in Poland exclaimed, “Play is when no one is crying and no one has a broken heart.” Children dare to beckon me to love more than I have ever done before. Such was the case in learning to play with my own children; it changed who I am as a father. I became more sensitive, aware, and responsive to their needs. Our play created a sense of trust that was not merely an idea but a felt part of our relationships, helping us literally to “stay in touch” with each other.

I have come to realize that in playing with children a new world of possibilities was being revealed to me. Over and over again children care for me and teach me again and again to widen my circle of compassion to embrace all life.


O.Fred Donaldson, Ph. D. – the author of an innovative programme called Original Play® , a world-famous specialist in the use of play as an alternative to aggression, violence and abuse, and an international consultant in the field of education. The Original Play® programme is the result of thirty years of research on children’s, adults’ and wild animals’ play behaviour. Fred Donaldson coined the term „Original Play”® and was the first to describe the process. He wrote a book entitled „Playing by Heart: The Vision and Practice of Belonging”, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. He is also the author of The Sanctuary Alliance – a project which is introduced and practised in many countries.

Fred Donaldson is a former professor at The University of Washington and The California State University, Hayward and The California School of Professional Psychology. Currently he gives lectures and workshops for organizations and institutions throughout the world.

He has worked with special needs children, culturally diverse communities, gangs and children living on the streets. In play he shares with them a different world, without fear, aggression, and persecution.

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