It’s mid-May. Much that we know about our world is disrupted by a virus that mutated from one that was relatively successfully contained geographically in 2002-4 – although its containment is no doubt little solace to those living with the deaths it caused. This new version, SARS-CoV-2 (Covid-19 referring to the year of its appearance), seems to be less virulent (as in having a lower mortality rate) but with a much higher transmission rate (not that that is any solace to hundreds of thousands left living with their relatives’ and friends’ mortality).

As we’re living with the virus, sizeable parts of the world have responded by closing down, by trying to limit human contact in an effort to limit that transmission. As we also know, after several weeks of staying home – an action made easier in places where a heritage of public (as in government) support and welfare resulted in some efforts to ensure a degree of income and for some employment protection – some of the the world’s most powerful began to loudly and insidiously (volubly and soto voce, directly and by sowing the seeds of doubt) question the economic costs of ‘locking down’ to save lives. These voices have an effect, in part because this is uncharted territory – both the cause and the response – and in part because this is one of those public health events where we can never know if we’ve done too much, but we will surely know (as we’re discovering our costs in the UK, USA, Brazil, and Sweden, as we discovered in Italy) when we’ve not done enough.

Those voices also have power because economic costs are significant, with widespread crises of capitalism expected, with some industrial sectors likely to see annual incomes fall by over 50% and up to 90% year on year, with some sectors – sports, hospitality, live entertainment and others losing close to all their income. There is an understandable fear – even in places where a tradition of welfare exists – laid down by forces emboldened by years of austerity, by policy frames that employ and education systems that teach only neo-classical economic models, and by decades of neo-liberal hegemony that prioritizes the individual as consumer not citizen, as rational economic decision maker. This is a fear intensified by a global sense of precarity – economically, environmentally, culturally, socially, and more.

Not surprisingly, debates have turned to the rejuvenation of sports, and have focused on its industrial and corporate forms, as incomplete football seasons are being revived giving options to those whose football fix was met by an unexpected obsession with the Belarusian league. Yet there has been little public debate about the rest of us – those outside the elite who may play widely and to varying degrees of competence – or about what mass participation sports might look like in a world where continuing with some form of physical distancing is likely to be essential to limit the spread of this highly transmissible virus. We’re in uncertain times; physical distancing may well exist in many places for a time period measured in years, not weeks.

Amid all of this I found myself “sitting in” on a webinar that was part of a teacher training programme (and grateful to those in the session who benignly tolerated the ramblings of the guy from the UK in the middle of their own local, highly militarized lockdown) during which I was asked what play could offer. Here’s what I should have answered…

There is an institutional aspect and a praxis aspect, and both are vital in grasping play’s significance. To be clear: sports and play are distinct and separate things. Neither can play be reduced to some instrumentalist educational project teaching kids their limits or citizenship or whatever else. Yet, in institutional terms play is more like that mass participation sport we know we should join in. Large parts of organized play are marginalized. They are poorly resourced, often (usually) run from the bottom up in local projects supported by volunteers and staff making a living out of several jobs (they are quintessentially of the precariat). In many of the most institutionalized settings what we might conventionally see as play has ceased – playgrounds closed, children’s ‘play dates’ terminated.

Yet what we’re also seeing is this precariousness leading to local, community driven, innovative responses where in the absence of ‘rules’ playworkers are doing what they always do; finding out about local conditions, coming up with schemes and solutions that, while not the conventional image of playing out-and-about, encourage the kids they work with to socially engage in ways that are playful and interactive – which means they laugh, they’re disrespectful, rude, rambunctious but also guided, prepared, helped to (learn to) play in a setting and context many have never have been in before – exclusively physically distanced but socially close. The reports I hear are of enormous effort and innovation going into preparing those opportunities for play at a distance that are suited to local and specific circumstances. This is a structural and formal autonomy that organized sport does not have; at some point rules are tweaked so far that ‘game’ stops being the ‘sport’.

This then bring us to praxis. When we think of play it is often with an image of boisterous activity, of physical proximity, of sociability, yet it is much more than this. The thing that play as practice has over sport in this context is its continuous malleability, its autonomousness (it exists only for itself), and its immersiveness. This is where play practice can teach us much about sport (or physical education) with SARS-CoV-2 because play’s malleability and autonomousness mean that when we enter into it, when we world build as we/by our play there are no rules other than the ones we’ve agreed as part of that world building. What’s more, when we stop playing that world ceases to exist (play and sport share this). If we stick with the ideas developed by and from Johan Huizinga in his 1938 classic Homo Ludens, when we play we enter a ‘magic circle’ separating us from other circumstances (of course, it is much more complex than that, and we’ve been debating, tweaking, challenging, disputing those ideas for 80 years) – but there are few who challenge play’s autonomy (although we dispute the degree to which it is absolute or discrete).

Sport and play might share this immersive distinction, might share the experience of rules that apply only within their bounds. There is a profound distinction meaning that they differ in one fundamental sense of autonomy: sports’ players have little control over the rules creating the world in which they play, although they can and do manipulate the spaces between and around those rules in performing their sport. They live with rules (‘laws’ in some sports) laid down from on high, perhaps with some variation by age, or sex, or level of play but these athletes are without (players’) autonomy and in a world not of their making. They do not have the local responsiveness that we see playworkers developing. For instance, what is soccer or rugby, in their various manifestations and local forms, without physical contact (in ‘flag versions’ this might be simulated, close but not bodily contact) – precisely the thing physical distancing prevents in an effort to manage SARS-CoV-2 in whatever year it breaks out? Physical contact is a constitutive rule of many sports without which they cannot exist in the way we think of them as that sport. It’s hard to remain two metres apart while playing in the spatially intended manner on a basketball or squash court – both non-contact sports.

Amid all this we know about physical activity’s social and psychological benefits – which is why in many jurisdictions staying at home rules doesn’t apply to exercise. It’s becoming urgent when thinking about sports (or PE) that we become more inventive – like these Danish kids playing human sized table football – and to do that we’ll need to adopt more of play’s bottom up fluidity as well as its autonomous, malleable world building, meaning it’s quite likely that for some time our physical activity might not look like the sport we’re used to playing. As a bonus, if it makes us more inventive, and weakens some of the institutional domination of corporate sports that would probably also be a good thing.

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