The Forest Metaphor

You Are The Forest

Arbiter corrects the forest metaphor.


Questor: You mentioned that something is a little off about the forest metaphor?

Arbiter: Yes. So far, the forest metaphor might not be totally apt with respect to toyful play.

Q: How so?

A: By making the identification between "toyful play" and "wandering a forest", you might be lead to think that toyful play is strictly about exploring things to see whats in them.

Q: Right, in the various stories about the forest, I, presumably the player, was wandering through woods, looking for streams or other interesting features of the forest. If I'm being honest, it doesn't seem very much like play, even if there's no useful end that I'm specifically seeking to bring about through my woodland walk.

A: Understandably so. Suppose the story about the forest was meant to structure a more specific activity: not toyful play in general, but rather, for example, the specific activity of playing with a rubber ball. Can you map the forest story onto that example?

Q: I think so. The rubber ball is the forest, and things like streams or interesting trees are what I can do with the ball: bounce it, ricochet it off of things, or invent some game with it.

A: Good - this is the answer I expected, and this is why the forest metaphor is not quite right. In order to make it right, you have to realize that it is not the ball that stands in for the forest. Instead, you are the forest.

Q: I don't follow. How so?

A: Toyful play is not a way to learn about things, not exactly. There are many non-play ways to learn about things: observation, instruction, disassembly and reassembly, and so on. But, in full generality, these things are not toyful play.

Q: So, if I am the forest in the story, then play is a way for me to explore myself?

A: This is getting closer. You are not trying to learn features about yourself, through play. Rather, just as when you wander the forest you find toadstools and deer tracks and pools of water and quiet grassy glens, when you are playing toyfully, you end up bumping into sources of pleasure, satisfaction, wonder, or fascination. That is, you discover your own values as you play. Sometimes, as with the forest containing a stream you did not know about before, the values are discovered in the true sense. They are new.

Q: But this is all seeming pretty heavy. If I am bouncing a ball and I discover that it is fun to see how many times I can bounce it off of walls before hitting some final target, a game of sorts, is that really "me discovering my values"?

A: I can see why you are skeptical. Usually talk of values is quite serious and weighty, hardly applicable to a solitary game with a rubber ball. But let us dwell on your rubber ball example for a bit. As you discover the things that you can do with the ball, some of those things naturally appeal to you as you play, and others do not. Does this seem correct?

Q: It does. My example was that I can bounce the ball off of a wall several times before hitting some target. This seems to me to be slightly more interesting than, say, simply bouncing the ball on the floor.

A: Right. So, do you think everybody would experiment with the same "rules" as you?

Q: Rules? Oh I see. Something like "the ball must ricochet off of at least one wall before it hits the target"? If that is a rule, then, no. I expect other people would find other ways to play with the ball.

A: Good! Now, suppose I came up and simply threw the ball at the target. How would you feel about that?

Q: Well.. I think I'd feel you were missing out, I might even feel that something is amiss.

A: And what would I be missing out on? What would be amiss?

Q: I suppose it would be something like: a way to challenge yourself and surprise yourself. But maybe something else too... I'd maybe feel like you were trying to overturn or interrupt something...

A: Right. You were focusing on the play - on an evolving sense of the latent possibilities inherent in the complex of you, the ball, and your surroundings. My just throwing a ball at a target starts to break the rules, nascent and inchoate even as they are. You still feel that something you were "working at" has somehow been "contradicted" or "turned" somehow.

Q: That's it exactly. It isn't upsetting or very serious even, but it does feel like it just isn't what I would do.

A: Exactly. And this is what I mean when I talk about values. Values do not have to be spelled with capital letters, or even fully realized in any pithy phrase. There are more values than just things like Fairness, Justice, Kindness, Creativity, and so on. Play is a way to create new values, however ephemeral they turn out to be.