CounterPlay, Denmark’s hybrid conference-festival celebrating play as a foundation for democratic engagement and social change, is coming to Seattle. And I find myself once again in the right place at the right time, working alongside experts and leaders way above my pay grade. This is how it happened.
In Denmark this summer, my contact with the LEGO Foundation Liam Nilsen introduced me to his former boss Amos Blanton. Amos introduced me to the concept of play as democracy and melted my brain. He then invited me to lunch with Mathias Poulson, the throbbing pulse behind CounterPlay, which he launched eight years ago in the Aarhus Public Library.
On a picnic table outside Design School Kolding, Mathias shared lunch with me, Amos, and several Ph.D.s, along with Helle Marie Skovbjerg (director of DSK’s Masters in Play Design program and CounterPlay contributor), and between mouthfuls we discussed his compelling vision of play. "Making a mess in the library," Mathias colorfully described it. Anarchy, unbalancing, spontaneity, collaboration, chaos, laughter; profound ideas shared from the stage, profound experiences shared in the hallway.
When I got back to Seattle I cold-called several play experts Stateside, one of them the local nonprofit parkour playground design group Parkour Visions. Their executive director Caitlin Pontrella, imported from her startups in New York to revitalize a demoralized, spiraling enterprise with tons of heart and crumbling structure, responded to my email and we met for coffee.
"I know Mathias. He invited me to speak at CounterPlay this year but I was in Scotland running my Art of Retreat event, and couldn't make it," she lamented.
"Do you want to bring it here, to Seattle, together?"
Honestly, I can't remember who asked whom that question. We both felt it. We mutually agreed to start digging a foundation and see how far the soil accommodated our shovels.
That was several months ago. We haven't even slowed down.
Next weekend we're hosting CounterPlay North America's Vision and Planning Shindig, a luncheon-to-happy-hour playstorm session with Jeff Harry of RediscoverYourPlay.com, Gary Ware of BreakthroughPlay.com, and Peter Tammetta of HighWire.com playground design, among others from our local and extended community. We want to explore what opportunities CounterPlay's manifesto and model can offer a North American constituency.
Denmark's attitude toward play is very different from Seattle's and much of North America. As Jeanette Jespersen of KOMPAN Play Institute in Odense told me this summer, it's easy to play when you know the rules. Denmark has maintained a fairly consistent and culturally universal set of rules governing behavior and expectations. "We were practically a monoculture," she described Denmark of a few decades ago. Even now, minority cultures represent a small fraction of the modest nation, sharing a landmass and population size with Maryland.
Multiply that population by fifty, exponentially increase the diversity and size of its minority cultures, explode its physical landmass by 36032%, add in a century of government-sanctioned slavery, arms-racing, and a splash of cowboy culture, and you've got one heck of a mess.
I'm all for messes, to be certain. They excite me. And that's why CounterPlay has been received with such enthusiasm among North American (and international) academics, professionals, and experts in the Play community. Existing U.S. play conferences trend toward theory, monologue, and typical presentation techniques reducing smart people to sterilized, disembodied talking heads.
CounterPlay is messy. Chaotic. Unpredictable. Spontaneous. And Caitlin's experience—hosting events and retreats designed to foster intimacy, provoke discovery, replacing hostility between groups and individuals with trust and mutual support—all contribute to an entirely different vibe. An experientially driven "un-conference" approach mixing high-altitude research from university professors and community leaders with music jamming, LEGO constructing, wood carving, balloon popping, pillow fighting, food tasting, art making interpersonal invitations—what does this do?
It builds trust. When we play together we build relationships. When we play "infinite games" as described by play philosopher James P. Carse—with the goal of maintaining consensus to keep the game going—we set many of our assumptions aside. We see people as humans rather than status competitors or potential mates; we create opportunities for empathy and genuine concern for others even when they don't look, sound, or express their ideas like us; we discover ways to communicate, relate, and support each other because the shared language and experience of play creates a stable foundation for diplomacy and social construction.
Gwen Gordon of GwenGordonPlay.com shared her professional and research-driven hesitation that play can form an adequate basis for a healthy society. "It comes back to questions of attachment," she told me a couple weeks ago. "People play differently, with different motivations, because of how they see the world." Her work defines play in three different places: the playground, the proving ground, and the battleground. Depending on how we fundamentally attached to our caregivers in childhood and developed security, we may not play well with others in the context of Infinite Games or empathy-building.
That's why we're inviting collaboration and contribution from as many slices of society's pie as we can get. We want to cross-pollinate and uncover perspectives and language for effectively reaching every corner of our society. Using play as a complex, natural lens to see the world, we've been sourcing representatives from psychology, health, education, design, architecture, business, academics, entertainment, sports, politics, and human rights advocacy to share this common space CounterPlay offers.
Not just share it. Mess it up. Deconstruct, rebuild, discover, and start something fresh. The outcome of CounterPlay must be courageous action taken in communion with like-minded, playful activists. Start a company, write a paper, shoot a film, give something away for free, start a conversation with a stranger, invite someone you disagree with for dinner, pray with someone hurting, intervene in social inequality, dance in public just to make people smile.
And it's not just for rich, young white people with four limbs. Our mission includes building bridges between cultures and communities within our society: race-inclusive, age-inclusive, ability-inclusive, gender-inclusive, economic-inclusive. We don't want travel distance, registration fees, or prejudice to burden anyone who believes play can start important conversations: we're assembling an inclusion committee to oversee every decision we make, to catch our assumptions before they become policy, and to apply principles of equality and access to as many communities as we can represent. And we're funding creatively, through partnerships and sponsorships we believe advance this equalizing, agency-enhancing mission.
CounterPlay North America is more than a conference. It's the leading edge of a global movement toward a more interconnected, caring, creative world unafraid of honest questions and leaps of intuition. I'm honored to find myself near its epicenter. If you're interested in joining me here, drop me a line.