Frozen bubbles

Why my PhD is threatening to kill the very subject I am studying – playfulness.

Frozen fish bubbles

I have a problem and I am stuck. I am a playful practitioner who delights in making ordinary mundane tasks more fun by reframing them and producing visual images that involve rearranging objects to create ‘enjoyable incongruencies’. My main hypothesis is that playfulness is the co-production between an environment for playful play and a bodily orientation towards playful play. It requires a playground and a body which is engaged with playful play. Playfulness is a bodily attitude in that it thinks using the body, expressing its thoughts through the actions it produces using the whole body. Playfulness is the bedrock for humour; it interrupts, ambushes, and reframes familiar patterns; it is the discovery of an environment for the purposes of playful play, which the body responds to in a playful manner, and it is a condition of self-mandating playful play.

Through asking my key research questions, what is playfulness and how do I produce it and represent it in my own playfulness as an illustrator, I seek to prove the above statements. But the process of carrying out a PhD to do this has caused a friction, a jarring, and an anxious struggle I am having trouble overcoming.  

My hypothesis implies that an individual can find an environment in which to be playful and if they consider it a playground, they may or may not engage with it in a playful way to produce playfulness. Playfulness is an attitude which extends beyond an activity (Sicart, 2014), and can enable the individual to reframe a situation in such a way to make it more enjoyable.

But my challenge is how do I look at the environment I am currently in – a sea of academic words, essays, and ideas – and consider it a playground in which to be playful? I look at it and freeze. The sense of humour, spontaneity, and manifest joy (bubbling effervescence) which Lieberman (1977) suggests is the evidence of playfulness are missing. Instead, it is as if the bubbles as pictured in (Fig 1) which here represent the bubbles of joy, are frozen and cannot reach the surface. This photograph of a pond I frequently run to in the mornings, shows how the air bubbles produced by the fish underwater have been frozen. As the warm air bubbles are exhaled out into the water, the sub-zero temperature freezes them before they have chance to rise and burst on the surface and create ripples as they do on warmer days. Why is that? The environment is hostile, it is too cold and stops the usual upward movement of those air bubbles.

To me the academic environment appears hostile because it threatens. It is forcing me to go into areas where I feel uncomfortable. It reminds me of a Grammar school environment of constant exams, tests, reaching the grades and the fear of failure if those grades are not obtained. Perhaps it is memories of working hard into the night, and cramming facts into my head to achieve what was expected in exam conditions? That is what academia represents because it is what I experienced. Noe (2006, p.205) calls experience ‘thoughtful activity.’

Perhaps then it calls for me to use some bodily thoughtfulness to change my environment. If, as I suppose playfulness is self-mandating playful play, can I as Walton (1990) explains find props for my imagining? Is there anything I can use to trigger an imaginative approach – or dare I say it – solution to this?

If I do this can my bodily attitude alter so that I see this new environment which looks like the one I used to frequent and did not enjoy, as a potential one for playful play? If playfulness is produced by the bodily orientation towards playful play and an environment for playful play, it requires an action on my part. If I can overcome this, then this is the very nugget I can share with others who are also in an uncomfortable situation that they would not consider or perceive as a place to be playful.


  1. I totally understand your predicament which as always you do eloquently write down. May you find a way to navigate in a hostile environment yet still maintaining a playful spirit

  2. As so many people find themselves in difficult circumstances I believe you will find the very core of what is needed for the full liberty of playfulness to be expressed fully.

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