Play: Maker of Our Many Selves

TT Journal, ISSUE 6, September 2023

By Sara Riaz Khan

Family folklore has it that as a young child I would often ask my elders, “Am I good?” Recalling this recently, I wondered what lay behind my question, to what extent it shaped me and whether it continues to do so. As an artist and educator I want to make a positive difference to the lives of others and to explore what it is to be human. However I can also be self-critical and am keen to do the right thing, in effect perhaps a grown up version of my younger self. Judgement aside, the memories of my childhood are mainly of play, of the freedom it offered and the friendships that grew out of it.

Play has the potential to impact us in powerful ways, whether we recognise it or not. When reflecting on what an ecology of play might look like, a creative approach can give us new perspectives. The “word “ecology” comes from the Greek oikos, meaning “household,” “dwelling.” Ecology is literally “the study of home” (Macfarlane, 2023). If we expand our understanding of ‘home’ to include the unique self that houses our values, beliefs and being – our identity, an ecology of play could be an exploration of the many selves that play makes of us.

Aged six I was a builder constructing a house.
Enclosed in a small space, the weight of sheets.

At seven I was a sculptor striking rock against rock.
Awareness of the ground I knelt on, feeling and forming shapes.

At nine I was a chef making soup amongst the vegetables.
Dirt on my hands, the clunk of the small metal pot.

Eleven years old I was a gymnast, cartwheeling thirty-two in a row.
Hands on spongy grass, the body in momentum, keeping count.

Apart from these personal recollections, we can examine ideas about identity and play in more general terms. One definition of play ‘to do things for pleasure, as children do; to enjoy yourself, rather than work’ (Oxford University Press, 2023), positions play firmly in childhood. However play can transcend time and be an expansive experience at any age. I may have left many selves behind but as someone still curious about life and excited by discovery, play is integral to my life. Through my painting practice as I explore questions about what it is to be human and imagine how I might communicate my ideas, I discover new techniques and learn more about myself.

Imagination is an essential component of play as it “refers to the ability to see and play with things in one’s mind” (Vincent-Lancri et al., 2019). Through play we can create and inhabit mini-worlds, we can invent tools and rules and we can even reinvent ourselves. To play, as to life, we bring the sum of our past experiences as well as our hopes and fears. In return it can offer us a sense of being complete. David Whyte refers to “three powerful dynamics that form human identity: what has happened, what is happening now and what is about to occur” (Popova, 2023). As we scurry to look ahead and worry about the past, play can offer us a way of being more present, of paying attention in the moment.

Although we often play to win, the freedom we experience in play can unshackle us from our severest self, our inner critic. This question of judgment is important; Charlotte Burgess-Auburn states that play “eliminates that intimidation factor because when you are playing the result is something that might be marvellous but it doesn’t count in some way, it doesn’t count against you…”. Even if it is temporary the act of play, often something we choose to do can also give us a sense of agency, “the feeling of being in charge of your life, knowing where you stand, knowing that you have a say in what happens to you, knowing that you have some ability to shape your circumstances” (Van der Kolk, 2015).

When we are weighed down by our responsibilities and under pressure, how can we foster curiosity, discovery and creativity, three fundamental aspects of play? One way may be to use a playful approach to activate our human connection by creating strong memories of people and places that bring us joy. One of my takeaways from a recently finished book, ‘Why We Forget and How to Remember Better’ is that in order to create more lasting memories, we need to focus “on the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, thoughts and feelings” as we experience them.

Now, when there is something I am keen to remember, I make a game of it. On a recent birdwatching trip with my daughter while scouting for sand grouse, I experienced the moment with intention. I thought of my happiness at being with her, listened keenly to the sound of the wind and focused my eyes on the sky. This felt to a great extent like my memories of play from childhood, vivid, complete and multi-sensorial:

At fifty-two I was a naturalist and explorer, scanning the horizon.
Racing wind, massive clouds and a full heart.

Abrahams, Matt. (Host). 2023, March 8). You need a manifesto: how to communicate your convictions (No. 83) [Audio podcast episode]. In Think Fast: Talk Smart. Stanford Graduate School of Business. 9268?i=1000606307168
Budson, A. E. & Kensinger, E. A. (2023). Why we forget and how to remember better: The science behind memory. OUP USA.
Macfarlane, R. (2023, March 29). Geography as generosity: An afternoon with Barry Lopez. Orion: Nature and Culture.
Oxford University Press. (2023). Play. In Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries. Retrieved March 3, 2023, from
Popova, M. (2015, May 15). Poet and philosopher David Whyte on anger, forgiveness, and what maturity really means. The Marginalian. Retrieved March 7, 2023, from maturity/
Van Der Kolk, B. (2015). The Body keeps the score: Mind, brain and body in the transformation of trauma. Penguin Group.
Vincent-Lancri, S. et al. (2019), Fostering Students’ Creativity and Critical Thinking: What it Means in School, Educational Research and Innovation, OECD Publishing, Paris,

Cover Image: Sara and Mathilda, courtesy of Suhail Lari, reproduced with permission of Yasmeen Lari

Sara Riaz Khan is a visual artist and educator curious about making connections between ideas and exploring what purposeful living looks like. She has taught Middle Years Programme (International Baccalaureate) art and design and been an artist-in-residence in the Primary Years Programme. As an educator, Sara has also developed original visual thinking tools to support student metacognition, well being and self-awareness. A life-changing crisis in 2007 accelerated Sara’s journey towards non-figurative art, as choosing to use an abstract approach allowed her to express her emotions honestly. She has developed community art projects as well as supported hospital outreach, disaster relief and literacy initiatives. Sara’s painting ‘Composite’ was exhibited in the University of Florida’s Center for Arts in Medicine’s digital gallery, ‘The Intersection of Creativity and Mental Health’ and her artwork ‘The Moon is You’, was included in the Bonhams South Asian Modern and Contemporary 2023 online auction.
Instagram: Sara Riaz Khan
LinkedIn: Sara Riaz Khan

Published Article:
Sustenance and Sustainability:
Interdisciplinary Thinking for Schools: Ethical Dilemmas MYP 1, 2 & 3 (Harbord & Khan, 2020)Interdisciplinary Thinking for Schools: Ethical Dilemmas MYP 4 & 5 (Harbord & Khan, 2020)