This is the fifth post in my creativity series and the last devoted to Dr. Stuart Brown’s ideas on the subject of play.
This week, it’s a personal tale of play, with a video to illustrate it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Te0kfivkFVY
Like too many people my age, I forget to play. Certainly, I attempt to integrate play and work, but I’m not always successful, and I seldom set aside time for simple, purposeless fun. In late August, however, I spent half a day of pure play, and now, months later, I still feel revitalized, refreshed, reawakened by those few hours.
We were staying at a tiny house on an island in Maine. It was a windy day, and I had been telling my wife, two sons, and a nephew and his girlfriend about my youthful infatuation with kites. When I was around 13, I designed and built many flying contraptions, some of them big enough to lift heavy weights. Once I suspended a concrete block over the Chicago marina for some hours, earning me the ire of boaters entering and leaving the harbor.
My son Milo had his video camera with him; we conceived the idea of building a kite with the lift required to carry his camera.
We scrounged up some scraps of lumber and a piece of cheap (about $2 at hardware stores) plastic painter’s tarp. Using proportions vaguely remembered from decades ago, a handsaw, and some plastic packing tape, I built a kite on the living room floor.
It was six feet tall, four wide. Our only purchase — about $6 — was a 500-foot spool of carpenter’s line.
Five hundred feet, it turns out, is a long string.
We ripped rags for a tail and took the kite out to a smaller island, just offshore. Lane’s Island consists of perhaps two miles of wave-ravaged granite shoreline wrapped around a low hill dense with wild rose and raspberry bushes and gnarly, wind-swept pines — a tangle of head-high brush cut with a maze of winding paths.
We launched from a grassy area about the size of a soccer field. The buffeting winds close to the ground were fickle, and we had no idea if the kite would fly at all, let alone lift the camera.
But it did. And at higher elevations, the wind turned powerful, relentless as a raging river. The kite flew to Google Earth heights, barely visible from the ground. With more string, I’m sure it would have gone into orbit. And wrestling with this sky-wild creature was a challenge. When we fed out line, the string burned the skin off our hands, and simply holding it against the stratospheric pull left gashes in our fingers. Reeling it in required two people to pull and a third to re-wind the string. By the end of the day, our biceps ached.
Conceiving the project, pondering proportions and guessing tensile strengths, scavenging for materials and building the kite, and then battling the elemental forces with all our strength — throughout, I existed in a state of what creativity psychologist Mihalyi Czikszentmihalyi calls “flow.”
What we were doing was purposeless by typical workaday standards. We wouldn’t get famous for it. Couldn’t monetize it. Wouldn’t become more attractive to the opposite sex. Wouldn’t ascend another rung on any ladder of success.
We did it for the intrinsic pleasure it provided us and the need to scratch the itch of our curiosity. This afternoon included every type and aspect of play mentioned by Dr. Brown: object play, creative play, social play, pleasurable suspense and anticipation and ultimately mastery; novelty, spontaneity, close coordination of hand and brain, improvisation, a bit of the rough-and-tumble.
And lots of looking skyward, which according to embodied-cognition theorists promotes constructive and liberated thinking.
How high could such a makeshift kite fly? You must watch the video to find out.
At the very beginning of the video, note the bird-shaped kite flown by my son Liam, seemingly high in the sky. Not long after, that kite is seen from above, then rapidly dwindles to invisibility. And some moments later, our soccer-field-sized launch site virtually disappears as well.
The video is crude, recorded entirely by the kite’s camera and only four minutes long. The audio is similarly rough, just as the camera captured it: the skin of the big kite slaps and rattles, and the higher-altitude winds make banshee shrieks and wolf howls in the string — wild and savage noises that we heard through our fingers that day.
A rough production, but, as we discovered when first reviewing the video, it has a beautiful surprise at the end.
That surprise, only slightly augmented by video manipulation here, gave us a shiver of epiphany when we first saw it. Can this be anything but the very face of the Green Man — the ancient spirit of living nature’s wild green places — with his benign but implacable gaze, hoary beard, brawny shoulders, and burly chest?
You will realize you have been watching him all along — as, unbeknownst to you, he has been observing you as well. He reminds us that we are very small and temporary, and that the world is indeed vast, durable, and magical.
Play can, as Dr. Brown assures us, lead to epiphany.
Again, to see the flight, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Te0kfivkFVY . Note: I will happily provide the specs of this kite’s construction to anyone requesting them.