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The Aesthetics of Play

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We all have aesthetic responses. Some of us cringe when we see a moldy sandwich, cry when we hear a sad song or feel more confident when we wear our favorite red jacket. Aesthetics, which Alexander Baumgarten named from the Greek word aisthanomai, simply means "perception by way of the senses." Aesthetics are how we perceive the world through our senses. For non-human animals, colors, smells and sights provide a means for survival, for humans they are also the way we interpret and understand the world.

After spending the past few years at Hollywood Arts, an arts school I founded for the homeless, I became interested in the emotional relationship between people and art-based aesthetic experiences -- specifically the role joyful, play-rich aesthetic experiences have in how we feel about ourselves and our willingness to try to new behaviors.

At Hollywood Arts, I observed a group of young adults who grew up in high poverty families or in institutional care, develop creative thinking and social skills as a result of frequent participation with the arts. For most of our students, this was their first time actively participating with drama, music or fashion. I watched our students push themselves beyond their comfort levels, overcome their fear of mistakes, and develop new behavioral, emotional and intellectual responses to challenges.

The question I asked was why? Why would homeless kids chose to come in off the streets and work, be open to feedback, even get yelled at occasionally without a tangible reward like a diploma?

I believe they showed up because interwoven into art-based aesthetic experiences is the chance to play. And I believe play is a key component of human development -- one with limitless powers to influence and affect us.

There is a clear affinity between aesthetics and play. Both aesthetics and play demarcate a need to experience or create order outside of an imperfect and oftentimes confusing world (you've "ruined the game" if you play without order -- the dance, the performance, or the drawing if you go outside the lines). Both aesthetics and play also allow us the opportunity to consider situations outside of our own ethical and moral systems (a found stick can transport a young boy into a battle over good and evil just as a painter may use brush stroke and color to investigate the same issue).

Both play and art-based aesthetic experiences give us the chance to envision and explore concepts beyond our daily lives, allowing us to uncover alternative perspectives and make new choices.

Volkswagen recently tested this concept with the Fun Theory. They hypothesized that fun, aesthetic experiences could change people's behaviors--moving them from "lazy to acting responsibly." In one of the most engaging efforts, designers converted a metro stairwell in Stockholm into working piano keys so that each step elicited a musical note. Seventy percent of commuters chose to take the stairs over the escalator!

This is what I saw at Hollywood Arts. Young people were making choices as a result of aesthetic experiences that were allowing them to play. Classes in improvisation gave a former foster care youth the opportunity to role play an executive which increased his confidence. Classes in fashion gave a homeless transgender youth the opportunity to experience color and beauty in a way that made him feel accepted. Like the little boy who picked up the stick or the painter who picked up a brush, Hollywood Arts' students were using their imaginations to experience concepts, relationships and roles outside of their daily lives, safely and playfully.

How many opportunities do we, as adults, have to play during each day? For most of us I would imagine the answer is few. But what would our world look like if we filled our lives with more joyful, play-rich aesthetic experiences? What if every day we had the chance to take the musical metro stairwell? What if during our workday we were encouraged to take an "improv break" instead of a coffee break? And what if we started our days in an aesthetically joyful home environment where utilitarian objects didn't just serve a purpose but spoke to us in emotionally meaningful ways? How would we feel about ourselves? What new ideas would we have or could we contribute to our communities?

The aesthetic response is hard wired into us. We have an innate desire to play and to use our imaginations (we spend an average 4 hours a day watching TV or movies ... retreating into worlds others have created for us) but what would happen if we created more opportunities every day to play in worlds of our own imagination?