Professor's new book anything but child's play

In "Play and the Human Condition," Elon University’s Thomas Henricks explores the way humans of all ages and cultures play with each other - through sport, games, art and more - and how such activities expand the sense of our own possibilities.

It’s often viewed as “the business of children,” a digression or dalliance not befitting rigorous academic study. At the same time, it’s how we learn to interact with those around us, to express ourselves, to understand agreed upon rules.

We play.

A simple concept it is not. “Play” may conjure images of sporting events, checkerboards or swing sets, but when you stop to consider what play entails – following established rules, for instance, or being able to pause, plan and evaluate actions – its importance to human and societal formation quickly becomes clear.

That importance is the central theme of a new book from one of Elon University’s most accomplished faculty members. For Professor Thomas Henricks in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, “Play and the Human Condition,” published by the University of Illinois Press, is a platform to identify conditions that instigate playful behavior and activities.

“Play is not simply sports and games,” Henricks said. “It’s all kinds of creative activity – art, music, riddles, tongue twisters! Sometimes, festivals and fairs can have that same kind of spirit.”

Play itself is hard to define because it is a type of expression that touches on many aspects of what it means to be human, Henricks said. It can focus on cultural, environmental, physiological, social and psychological elements of the world. It can be highly organized or rather informal, order-seeking or complete disorder, with players who at times exert control and at other moments subordinate themselves.

Play is transformative while it focuses on achievements and experiences within the event itself, Henricks said. It can feature a vigorous exchange between a player and an object, and it is largely unpredictable. Play also relies on participants to start, sustain and monitor the event.

It’s one thing to go through the motions of a game by agreed upon rules, Henricks argues, but that’s not the only point of our play. It’s also about our involvement with one another. “We’re trying to learn what it means to win and to lose, and the personal implications of how situations work themselves out,” he said.

Yet play does more than teach. It gives us the freedom to envision a better version of ourselves. “This is about the process of self-realization,” Henricks said. “When we play, we expand the sense of our own possibilities. That’s what play is about.”

“Play and the Human Condition” was released this spring at the same time as “The Handbook of the Study of Play,” a compilation of essays and another work in which Henricks served as co-editor. The two newest titles bring the number of books Henricks has now published to five, including “Play Reconsidered: Sociological Perspectives on Human Expression” and “Disputed Pleasures: Sport and Society in Pre-industrial England.”

Henricks is already working on his next two books, “Pleasure Dome” and “Ill at Ease: Modernity and its Discontents,” which examine the sources and implications of discontent in modern societies. “Ill at Ease” also will analyze the conditions that confront and support human involvement, the possibilities for connection and disconnection from these conditions, and the ways in which these relationships have been altered by the social and cultural patterns of advanced modernity.

Henricks joined the Elon faculty in 1977 and is regarded as one of the university’s finest teachers and scholar. He received Elon’s highest award for teaching, the Daniels-Danieley Award for Excellence in Teaching, in 1990.

He has also held administrative and leadership roles on campus, serving as chair of the sociology department from 1986-1991 and associate dean of academic affairs and dean of the division of social sciences from 1991-1997.

Henricks, who grew up in Indianapolis, earned a bachelor’s degree from North Central College, and master’s and doctoral degrees in sociology from the University of Chicago.