Bluey, Boa Constrictors, and Being More Playful
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Welcome to Spirit: Notes for the Creative Contemplative, where I discuss the role of literature, creativity, and mindfulness in culture through personal essays. I’m the author of What Will Outlast Me? (Unsolicited Press 2023), and I’m the founder of Writers’ Studio, a literary arts education program in Corpus Christi, Texas.
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When my son, Stanley, turned five, he received a haul of Bluey™ toys and merchandise. I was thrilled. Though I’ve long scoffed at the aggressive brand-merchandising that plagues kids’ products and instills capitalist consumer loyalty, Bluey is different.
Bluey is an Australian-produced kids cartoon staring a family of Blue and Red Heelers: Dad, Bandit, and Mom, Chilli, are equal co-parents. Bandit is just as likely to be seen emptying the dishwasher and fixing the kids breakfast as Chilli. The title character, Bluey, who’s a girl, by the way, is six years old, and has younger sister, Bingo, who’s four. Each 8-minute episode focuses on an aspect of imaginative play.
The show resonates with millions of kids and parents because it’s the only cartoon that “knows how hilarious play can be, how silly and intense, how trivial but life-changing,” explains Kathryn VanArendonk. Bluey creator, Joe Brumm, based the show on his real-life experiences with his daughter. “We had a little bit of a tough time with our eldest daughter when she started school,” Brumm reveals. “It was all about golden words and numbers, being tested, and she didn’t respond very well to that at all.” So he set out to produce a show that champions the incredible learning power encapsulated in play.
As Fred Rogers reminds us,“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning.”
Because Bluey avoids the trite formulas and rote learning models seen in most kids shows, it feels fresh even as it reminds us of what early childhood educators and developmental psychologists have known for decades: play is essential for human development.
Bluey is brilliant because it teaches kids and adults to play better. It’s impossible to watch an episode of Bluey without noticing how play is an explosive conduit for complex learning by which children first experience collaboration, cooperation, and emotional regulation.
Like good improv actors, Bandit and Chilli, accept any bid Bluey or Bingo make for imaginative play. Bandit is game for anything: pretending his hand is a bitey Emu named Shaun, imagining he’s a claw arcade game, or that a piece of asparagus is a magic wand that turns family members into animals. My favorite is when he plays a dumb octopus with writhing tentacles. Bandit enters into his daughters’ imaginative play world with a compassionate ease I admire. It’s taught me to do the same, which is how I ended up playing veterinarian when Stanley plopped his stuffed boa constrictor on the kitchen table and wailed, “My snake is sick! He has a stomachache.” I assumed the role of vet, taking the snake’s vitals, and then pretended to induce vomiting, much to Stanley’s delight. Watching Bluey has not only made me a better parent, but it has also deepened my own to relationship to play.
One important aspect of nourishing creativity is giving nascent ideas a chance to thrive by not shooting them down too quickly. By saying a big “Yes!” to what could be possible, we open ourselves up to unique, new, and fun places—both in our interactions with each other and with our creative work. It’s easy to fall in love with Bluey and her family because they operate from the assumption that the world is a delightful, surprising place (there are so many things to make your tail wag!). Creativity flourishes under these circumstances.
Nothing stifles my own creativity more than fear of failure, but embracing play shifts that dynamic. Play is defined in part in by its frivolousness. It’s not real-world goal oriented. Its actions aren’t meant to pay the rent or become a line on the curriculum vitae . “Play is the ideal context for practicing new skills or trying out new ways of doing things precisely because play has no real-world consequence. Nobody is judging, no trophy is on the line, so the player is free to fail. With freedom to fail comes the freedom to experiment,” writes Peter Gray, in “What Exactly Is Play, and Why Is it Such a Powerful Vehicle for Learning?”
As a writer who, by necessity, has a full-time teaching job, I struggle with juggling the demands of my writing career with the demands of the work that pays the bills, but there is an often-unnoticed benefit to not forcing my creative work to support me. “The difference between work and play is largely intention. Play is intended for amusement, joy, and perhaps mastery, with the main intention being to continue to play. Work is intended for results, benefit, and sustenance, with the main intention being to continue to survive or provide for yourself,” explains Herbert Lui in Creative Doing. When I play with words on the page, instead of working them, not only do I enjoy the process more, but the end result is also often better too.
I love Calypso, Bluey’s teacher. In her title episode, Calypso is a play-whisperer. She keeps the puppies’ play going with only minimal intervention (play should always be self-directed). She gently encourages the puppies not to give up on a project too soon, and she orchestrates collaborations between the players without interjecting her own ideas. In other words, she lets the process of discovery happen.
All acts of creating (writing, composing, painting, sculpting, ect) spring from play. The more practice one has with the medium, and the more knowledge the creator has of what others have created in the same medium, the more elaborate the product or outcome is. In fact, it becomes so elaborate and intricate that it obscures the fact that that it all came, initially, from play.
Sometimes when an artist has played for a very long time, that play crosses over to work because the efforts of it produce the same results of work: money, fame, awards. I think the secret, though, is to cultivate Bluey’s attitude: when creating, play for as long as you possibly can.