One of the powerful influences on older middle-class women's approach to play is having grown up in a social system that prepared them, more exclusively than young women today, for housework, mothering, and emotional and physical care-giving. As wives, mothers, and caretakers of others, women have been variously regarded as childish, silly, passive, foolish and scatter-brained-men's playthings and sexual playmates. In effect, these so-called childlike characteristics became learned survival behaviors, in no way reflecting women's abilities to think and act with intelligence and competence. And it may be that only in the home or in private life do we find the love, nurture, and playfulness absent from the "public" marketplace. Male socialization has been serious and task-oriented, concerned with separation, power and control; women's lives are seen as less ordered and predictable. Some feminists feel that the compensatory strengths developed by women as a result of being "other," ie. marginal to the public sphere, are the very strengths and skills needed today to save the planet: attributes of care, connectedness and concern.
Because women do not conform to traditional male definitions of what is considered humourous or playful in our society, some have never considered themselves playful. The participants in my study said, "We don't play competitive games and we're rotten joke-tellers." Since most joke-telling is at the expense of women and other minorities, it's no wonder that we are not very enthusiastic about it as a pastime. Nor is taking centre stage in mixed company considered respectfully feminine. Our humour tends to be in the shape of informal story-telling that describes the foibles of our personal lives and which generally takes place in groups where we feel trusted and at ease. Feminist studies indicate that humour is experienced differently according to who has the power in an interaction, to whom the humour is directed, and what is "at stake" (3).
The way we learn can also be an expression of playful inclinations. One woman puts it this way: "There's something related to the stance of being a learner - that one approaches one's experiences, one's life work, as learning. It is the same as approaching it as a player." When a playful attitude is not present, learning is diminished, and for some women, impossible. In describing the connection between play and the way they learned, the women in my study unanimously agreed that "play opens me up to learning." A playful approach has the potential to release censors which inhibit and control our thinking and feeling. This was expressed by the women as "releasing the steel bands around my body of knowledge," "opening doors," "opening up possibilities," or "enabling me to see things in new and different ways." One woman called play "the great lever which allows all of my intelligences to interact." For some of the women the risk in taking a playful stance was always preferable to what is predictable or routine. Ivy explained: "With a task, if I know how to do it, it gets boring. It has to be an adventure. I don't want to know how to get there. That's where the fun is. Your whole being is working. I don't like doing things that have been done before. I need the self-discovery notion in everything I do. If you add predictability, you lose me."
On a practical level, when play can be infused with learning we become more energized and involved intellectually and emotionally. "If it's not fun, it's not worth doing" was a sentiment often repeated by the women. When we engage in playful learning we temporarily suspend judgment, "go with the flow," and venture into the unknown, daring at times to rock the cultural boat. Playful thinking helps the way we come to know things, stimulating us first through intuition or the senses, later helping us to put hunches into words.