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By Sal Usman November 29, 2022

My Autobiography of Play

From jump-ropes to wheelies to drag racing, it seems us humans never seem to stop playing. But what exactly does it mean to play? From video games to basketball with your friends in the yard and more, play seems to present itself in many fashions and iterations. However, one thing remains universal: the unfathomable ability of play to foster creative development on a grand scale.

I still cherish early memories of my own play. I was no older than 10 years old when one day my mother and I decided to go to the park. As the youngest child, I was definitely the most rowdy and energetic of my siblings. This park in question was ridiculously small. My family and I were not the most fortunate growing up; we often had to take advantage of community centers, potlucks, and other neighbourly activities such as raffles and street-sales. Therefore, already lacking toys and not having much to do at home at such an early age presented problems. But my mom would not let that deter me from enjoying my childhood. This park was no bigger than your average college classroom and had your basic set of baby swings, “big boy” swings, a see-saw, sand and its main attraction, the slide. I instantly fell in love with the playground for its beautiful colors, its different shapes, and for the mini games it offered with its multiple entrances, stairs and rope to climb. At the time, all that was more than enough diversity for me.

I remember vividly that it was a scorching summer day, and somehow this day felt odd; my older siblings no longer wanted to play with me, preferring to study and go to work, which at the time did not make sense to me. There weren’t any other kids at the park, which made me happy; I had the entire space to myself, all the freedom I had been searching for. Finally, it was my time to let out all my energy and run freely from obstacle course to see-saw and then back to the obstacle course. My mom would often sit on the bench and watch me to make sure I was not playing too dangerously, though since incredibly early in my childhood she had already understood that I was going to grow up as a kid who loved his extremes. “He’s either going full crazy squirrel or hibernating like a polar bear” is often what my mom would say. I saved the best for last: a swing immediately followed by a slide. Each flying leap from the swing to the sand, each step to the top of the slide, each ride down, each “woohoo” as I came careening to the bottom just made me go faster and faster each time I climbed back up. I wanted to experience such euphoria for the rest of my afternoon.

Sadly, as all things must come to an end, so did my escapade of sliding down crazily. On my 13th or so round, I mistakenly stood up from the slide too soon. This was a crucial mistake, and I remember the exact millisecond of regret seeping into my mind. The handlebar right above the slide hit the top of my skull so hard that it deformed my head permanently. Instantly flashes of pain ran through my body, spiking in my head. My vision blurred and the sight of my mom in distress running towards me to pick me up and bring me home was the last thing I remember.

Many instances during my childhood often felt like a fever dream. I never had a proper way of defining and exploring these memories; they were simply tucked away within my psyche as mementos and little snippets from my life. The lens flare, the motions from scene to scene––it all felt unreal, like nothing else I had experienced, and I recall that within those moments it would always seem that play would last forever. However, looking back on those “golden days,” I can see that I took those moments for granted, as forever did not end up lasting as long as I hoped it would.

Another play experience that holds significant importance to my life is one that takes place around my elementary school days, back when my worries mainly revolved around if my mother had packed good snacks or not. It was sometime in the fall, when the gloomy season begins to enter, and the optimistic sunny season fades away: a time for me of seasonal depression. This form of sadness was not that prevalent in my early years as much as it has been in recent years, yet there still was a gloom cast over my head when I saw that the days were getting shorter, the nights getting longer, and the rain just did not seem to stop. Personally, everyone found me weird for the fact that I became comfortable in this ominous, gloomy feeling, that this unsure mood became rather familiar to me as I grew up, and eventually seeing raindrops slide down windows during lunch became my favourite pastime.

I recall one day in gym class, we were playing dodgeball, one of my most hated sports, as I was skinnier and weaker than the rest of the boys who would always play so rough. It was then time for the team captains to pick their teammates. This was absolutely the most suspenseful and anxiety-inducing stage ever as it revealed who had a lot of friends in school and who had none. I’m sure you can guess which one I was. For some odd reason, I was always picked towards the end of the process, the pick that the other team gets for the sole reason that I was the last one, never picked because someone actually wanted me on their team but picked because they had to. This regular feeling of being excluded made me despise the other kids and was something I had to become used to pretty fast. It was a primarily white-dominated school in terms of demographics, so being the only coloured boy in my grade proved difficult for making friends and enjoying my play experiences.

However, I soon discovered that play does not require others. I remember my team-captain’s disgust and annoyance that he had to pick me to be on his team. I did not like him either, but we all had to participate in order to pass the class. He put me back against the wall where in dodgeball it was considered the safest. Essentially, your role would become that of a housemaid servant, picking up balls for the strong boys to throw, maybe catch a ball to get one of your teammates to come back into the game, and overall, just to be a placeholder in case everyone gets knocked out and you are the last one alive. Other than that, I just stood at the back waiting for the dreadful class to be over, and it was one of many instances where I often felt excluded whether it be for the color of my skin or my lack of stereotypical masculine athleticism, among many other reasons.

Another form of play that I partook in during my childhood would be playing with toys, since I was heavily introverted and did not find enjoyment in playing with other kids. I would often just play with toys by myself. The problem was that since I was so fidgety, and my parents would not be able to afford many good quality toys, I would often break my toys. I can recall vividly at the age of twelve, my father had given me a screwdriver and then sent me into the basement as he did not want to take me on a walk as my mother told him to do. I remember walking into the basement, and with the screwdriver that was given to me, I started breaking, accidentally, all the toys, computers, printers, and more. Nothing was safe from my tinkering capabilities. I had spent a good few hours down there before my dad noticed that I hadn’t come back up. It was so much fun tinkering, yet seeing all my toys broken on the ground in front of me disheartened me heavily. What was I supposed to play with now? This struck me with an idea that I have never had until this day: what if I used the very same tools that I destroyed all these things with and instead used them to fix things? Instantly, creativity jolted through my body like a serum and thus began my journey to start fixing everything I broke. My parents were not very fortunate, so I was not able to get new toys, thus they would refrain from buying me more toys since I would always break them. This dilemma stirred up a lot of confusion in me as a kid. Why couldn’t I get the same Legos that all the other kids got for their birthdays? Regardless, this knack for breaking things eventually turned into a talent for fixing things no matter how complex the job; it was puzzling, yet I found such great fun in the trivia of it all.

Growing up I never felt like I belonged to a herd or team in any sense, fostering an independence and pattern of “all-or-nothing” behaviour that is exemplified in my play. I was always more comfortable approaching tasks and challenges by myself, without ever knowing exactly as to why this was; usually I chalked it up to the fact that I wouldn’t want anyone else’s performance or lack thereof to affect my results. Working alone just felt better to me. I would not have to worry about anyone interfering with what I wanted to accomplish. It is quite surprising to see that my lack of intimate connection with anyone at a youthful age had a domino effect on the rest of my life, causing me to grow up in a more independent manner altogether. This “lone-wolf” mentality stuck with me for years as I always envisioned my own dreams through my own lens. I would hardly ever trust anyone else to aid or work alongside my vision as I simply did not believe that they could comprehend and value the ideas the way I would. To this day, I still prefer to work alone on my creative constructions, whether it be school related or just a personal project, since how could somebody else make my dream for me when they don’t understand even the first few steps of how I dream?

Another quality that I also ended up retaining from these experiences is my extreme behaviour, which isn’t necessarily one of my more positive traits, yet it is still something that makes me unique. I was a very hyper kid growing up, always having so much energy to expend but nowhere to spend it. Seeing the park and its emptiness sparked a flame that was asleep in myself for so long, like a dog seeing a squirrel and going absolutely crazy; that was me as a kid whenever I saw an opportunity for either expressing myself or to simply play as much as I wanted to. Conversely, if my flame of energy was not bright and my mood was lower than usual then I would resort to being the quietest kid that anyone could ever imagine with almost zero work ethic to get anything accomplished for the sole reason that I would not feel like it. This carried over into my teenage years, and my academic performance was definitely not enhanced by this trait. If I did not show any personal interest in a certain subject or homework, then I simply did not do it properly; that is, I would accomplish whatever work was assigned almost always last minute, and it would be work that I was obviously not committed to. There was a huge lack of passion in things I did not want to look forward to, and this resulted heavily in me internalizing this trait of “all-or-nothing” and applying it still to this day to essentially every aspect of my life.

Although I may have always seemed extroverted and outgoing growing up, I would argue that I was always introverted and that I created the extroverted “side” of me as a counter to social situations that rendered me awkward and uncomfortable. The conditions of the school I was in made it hard for me to properly connect with any of the other students, which later further internalized my lone-wolf mentality and further drove me down the path of remaining solo for majority of my life so far. A positive outcome is that I had learnt to enjoy play without any others whilst also developing another perspective on the world. While other kids focused on the bright vibrant colors that the teacher would present to us in different shapes and faces, I was curious about “seeing raindrops slide down windows during lunch.” I always felt that I viewed everything in life from a different angle than others, I felt that my perspective was skewed compared to the general population. I held different unpopular opinions. I liked flavours that other people despised, and at first this deterred me heavily from ever expressing myself as who I truly was. Thankfully, I embraced this different point of view and utilized it in order to be different from the crowd, to provide some diversity and to be a new variable in a world with the same ones and zeros.

My play experiences have heavily influenced the course of my life and the person who I have become today. Being able to tinker around in my parent’s basement allowed me to discover a brand-new talent that I first regarded as a bad habit of breaking toys, but it turned into a realization of the capabilities I held at my fingertips. My habit of tinkering around has ended up developing into a major knack for breaking things down into their smallest pieces and then putting them back together all over again just to see how things work. It was this very realization that propelled my life towards engineering. If I had not gone down into that basement that day, I would not have discovered that my talent for deconstructive analysis of toys and, later, for understanding complex computing systems. Nowadays, I can apply this method of deconstruction to almost all aspects of my life, whether it be complicated homework, the upset feelings of my girlfriend or simply creatively making something that comes from within. This play experience has allowed me to properly express myself and approach life in ways I never thought were possible.

Play has allowed me to develop my creative abilities in many aptitudes whether it be how I regularly tackle assignments, the way I present myself in social situations or the general way I view the world. As is true for all people, my play has given me a “flavour” that has made me unique.

Photograph, Child walking alone on a beach by Dan Slee distributed by CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

About the author

Sal Usman is a 3rd year student in the Electronics Engineering program. With passions in photography, writing and technology, he strives to bring a unique vision to the world.

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    December 2, 2022

    Incredible essay, I love it!!!

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