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Playful Care and Caring Playfulness

An interdisciplinary workshop held at the Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies brought the two seemingly distinct domains of care theory and play theory into conversation for mutual inspiration and insights.

Prevalent ideas about care and play tend to present them as two distinct domains: Play theory has predominantly focused on the central role of play to cognitive development and explored play as a domain of creativity. Care theory, on the other hand, has explored care as a domain essential to individual and communal thriving, although often invisible and devalued. But maybe there is a playful element to care, and maybe an element of playfulness is indeed needed in many situations where neither carer nor cared-for may be certain about what good care entails? And, vice-versa: maybe a central and overlooked aspect of the role of play to life is its contribution to finding ways of being and thriving together, across generational, cognitive, social, and cultural boundaries - and perhaps even across species boundaries?

These questions were explored at the workshop “Playful Care and Caring Playfulness”, which gathered an interdisciplinary group of people whose work has centred on play and/or care – analytically and conceptually or through design and arts – to explore what kinds of insights we may get if we bring together ideas about care and play and reflect on the tensions and convergences between them.

The presentations took us from the efforts of artists and activists in Jordan to make spaces for thriving (Marie Rask Bjerre Odgaard) to care for visiting children in an intensive care unit in Denmark through playful experiments with sound atmospheres (Marie Koldkjær Højlund); from joking and joking relationships between grandparents and grandchildren in East Africa (Lotte Meinert) to a longing for rudeness in relationships with staff at a Danish hospice (Andreas Roepstorff); from meaningful spaces created between staff, residents and relatives at an art workshop at a dementia home in the UK (Martin Jones) to the conditions for creative subjectivity among people who live alone with serious illness in Denmark (Rikke Sand Andersen); from the unexpected openings of spaces of care across generational and religious divides in Kyrgyzstan (Maria Louw) to the subtle movements, loops and convergences between care and playfulness in different practices of radical listening (Katrin Heimann).

Common themes across disciplines

Several common themes went through the presentations and came up in the conversations around them. One theme that went through several presentations was the ways toys – whether objects designed as toys or objects which acquire or are given toy-like qualities during interaction – may enable experiments with different ways of caring, creating meaningful and often joyful spaces for being together that cut across social, generational, religious, and cognitive divides. Such experiments may become particularly important in contexts that are usually characterized by strict hierarchies, roles, or norms for interaction. Martin Jones, for example, reflected on how an art workshop broke down what was usually very clear role divisions between staff, residents, and relatives at a dementia home in the UK and created a meaningful space across such divisions.

Marie Koldkjær Højlund described her work with developing a “kid-kit” to playfully familiarize visiting children to an intensive care unit in Denmark with the unfamiliar and potentially frightening alarm sounds that dominate its soundscapes. Playful experiments with other ways of caring and being-with through things with toy-like qualities also become particularly important in the face of relatively strict family and gender norms, as in Marie Rask Bjerre Odgaards case from Jordan, or in the face of the usually tense relationship between Kyrgyz Muslims and converts to Christianity, as in Maria Louw’s case. Entering such spaces for caring and being together across boundaries and hierarchies may be experienced as anxiety-provoking, because they put established identities and positions at risk - but also liberating for the exact same reasons.

Another, closely related, theme that went through several presentations was the importance of humor and joking in caring. Most explicitly, this theme came up in Lotte Meinert’s reflections on the changing forms of joking relationships between grandparents and grandchildren in the context of urbanization and migration in North-Eastern Uganda – but also in several other presentations humor was presented as a particular and important variety of playfulness through which people experiment with care relationships.

Skepticism and resistance

Interestingly, several of the workshop participants had encountered skepticism and resistance among various stake holders relevant to their field of work or research – or themselves felt a sense of unease – when it came to focusing on playfulness in care relations involving people in precarious circumstances, wary, perhaps, that such a focus may imply not taking suffering seriously. In a dementia home, as described by one of the workshop participants, residents would enjoy playing with toys, but the staff would hide the toys when visitors came, because they did not want others to think that they treated the residents as ‘children’.

What the cases presented during the workshop hinted at, however, is that it may exactly be in situations characterized by suffering and precariousness that playfulness becomes particularly important, e.g. for retaining dignity, agency, and meaningfulness, or for helping others to do so, and as a means to imagine that things could be otherwise. As the Ik in Northern Uganda would say – as recounted by Lotte Meinert:

When you have lost everything else, you can still laugh together.

Care and agency

Yet another theme that cut across the presentations and tied together the discussions was the theme of agency. In his presentation, Andreas Roepstorff suggested that care may be seen as caring for the agency of the other. Figuring out how best to do so may involve a willingness to go beyond what may seem appropriate in the situation. As a telling case Andreas Roepstorff referred to a woman who received care at a hospice and who recounted that no matter how badly she treated the staff, they were nice to her. In that was she felt that they denied her sense of agency, as if she was already dead.

Likewise, drawing on her research among people in Denmark who live alone and with cancer, Rikke Sand Andersen asked the question not only how to care, but what it is that is being (or should be) cared for: not only ‘bare life’, but what she terms the ‘conditions for creative subjectivity’; the conditions for living a meaningful life – to which agency is central. In play, agency is often blurred, as Katrin Heimann pointed to. Such blurring is achieved by a radical listening attitude - to another human or non human interactor (such as a toy is) - a state of curious exploration without the need to judge or respond with something else, that also lies as the heart of the micro-phenomenological approach and related techniques. Within this very act of listening and repeating, usually not attended perspectives can appear, giving space to new opportunities to interact and play.


Maria Louw, Associate Professor, Carlsberg Monograph Fellow
Email: etnolouw@cas.au.dk

Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies (AIAS) &
Department of Anthropology
Aarhus University