Inside the Strong Museum of Play

The Importance of Play: A Day at the Strong Museum of Play

Inside the Strong Museum of Play
The Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, NY, is a place to escape to childhood nostalgia and cultivate childhood imagination.

The Importance of Play – A Day at the Strong Museum of Play

“Here, then, we have the first main characteristic of play: that it is free, is in fact freedom. A second characteristic is closely connected with this, namely, that play is not ‘ordinary’ or ‘real’ life. It is rather a stepping out of ‘real’ life into a temporary sphere of activity with a disposition all its own.”

Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture, p. 8

For the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga, play is a precondition for culture. It should not be defined as a form of culture, because it is observable in other species, and is thus not unique to humans, even if culture is. The play of people and animals is similar, insofar as there is a firm separation between quotidian life and play, typified by an initiation of play (as when a dog drops down on its front paws and wags its tail) and a cessation of it, as players disband. Across species, it represents a kind of circumscribed temporal communal activity clearly separated from the work of survival.

Unlike with animals, for humans, this temporal separation is also frequently accompanied by a physical separation. A separate space is set aside or marked off for play, whether in the form of chalk-drawn hopscotch courts, Greek amphitheaters, tlachtli fields, baseball diamonds, movie theaters, ritual sites, or even massively multiplayer online VR worlds. In times of carnival, play can occupy the quotidian, recontextualizing it and transforming it, at least for the duration of the temporary transgression.

As the list above indicates, play imbues our lives, whether as children or as adults. It is at the same time culturally formative (as in the mimicry play of children learning social behavior), transformative (as in the critical function of carnival and festivals, as means of transgressing and thereby questioning certain social conventions) and reformative (as in the coalescence of social mores after periods of change and the establishment of ritual rites, which are closely associated with play by Huizinga).

Due to its breadth, and the unique value of play in the constitution of human cultural space, Huizinga proposed calling contemporary people, Homo Ludens (Playing People) rather than Homo Sapiens (Knowing People), as (at least for Huizinga), knowledge seemed subsidiary to play in the creation of culture, a sentiment shared by Albert Einstein, who famously said that “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world.”

This is because for Huizinga (and Einstein), imagination is ultimately more privileged than knowledge as a form of cultural production. Knowledge may provide means, but imagination dictates how those means might be used and to what possible ends. Play is ultimately an activity of imagination and invention, as much as it is a method for exploration and discovery.

Given the importance of play, I always find museums dedicated to play and wonder, like the Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, NY, particularly compelling. At the very least, they provide means for reminiscence: nostalgic glimpses into the past capable of rekindling the spark of joy that once accompanied a favorite toy, book or game. Memories of childhood friends, whose names and faces once dim and blurry suddenly burn bright and clear at the appearance of an unremembered pastime, like Twister or Sit-n-Spin.

Packed with displays, environments and interactive exhibits, the space uses a flexible BusRun infrastructure to support its complex lighting program. Theatrical Litelab LED replacement fixtures are placed throughout with gels to modulate lighting environments based on the sensibilities of different areas, a murky amber light over an enchanted castle, a vibrant blue light over Superman.

For those of us fortunate enough to have children, the joy of the Strong is doubled, as the occasionally wistful or melancholy effects of nostalgia are mitigated by the gleeful freneticism of a child (or children) immersed in a world dedicated to play and the objects that support it. Video games, enchanted castles, pirate ships, superheroes, land-bound sand beaches, helicopters, grocery stores, Sesame Street, etc. — the possibilities of play are almost overwhelming, as children flit from section to section, display to display, new acquaintance to new acquaintance.

There are few other places a child might be Jack on the Beanstalk, a prince or princess, a pirate, a pilot, an astronaut, a beach-bum, a climber, a contractor, a Paw Patroller, and on and on, all in a single day, at a single sprawling location dedicated to the history, importance and joy of play and playing.

Given a day to explore and enjoy, I witnessed no child protesting leaving, including my own, who promptly succumbed to sleep on his way home, a new Matchbox clutched limply in his hand.