Authentic play – Portal to the divine

When Dr O. Fred Donaldson became weary of the lack of real learning happening at the university where he was professor of geography, he resigned and became an assistant at a nursery school. He found what he was looking for.

2007 Fred's visit 025 (2)With his acute sense of observation, Fred quickly noticed a pattern in the way the children played. He read up about play, but was disillusioned: “The more I played, the greater the discrepancy grew between my experience and the books. I became increasingly convinced that I was being initiated into a very different relationship, which scientists variously described as aimless, blowing off steam, acting out, unreal, competitive, childish, pre-learning for adult life and a release of repressed aggression.”

“I found only a few exceptions to the standard social science treatment of play,” Fred wrote in his book Playing by Heart. “One day, re-reading Gregory Bateson’s A Theory of Play and Fantasy, I was struck by his insight that play could only occur if the participant organisms were capable of some degree of metacommunication, i.e., of exchanging signals which would carry the message, ‘this is play’. This was what had been happening between me and my playmates.”

When he started suspecting the universality of play as a metapattern (pattern of patterns), Fred turned his attention, first to children of very different socio-economic backgrounds, and then to animals – wolves, bears, dolphins and even lions. Everywhere he found exactly the same (meta)pattern.

D 4The messages that underlie the play of animals and children alike are always the same: “You are valuable” and “There is nothing to fear”. Fred called this kind of play, in which there is no competition, conquest, winning or losing, no blaming, no fairness and no revenge, original play or authentic play. This he did to distinguish it from what we normally call ‘play’ in our society, which he called cultural play. Whenever there is any form of competition, conquest, winning or losing in what we call ‘play’, it is cultural play. Original play is inherent in us; it comes from the core of our being. Cultural play is something we make up from the level of the ego. It is not wrong; just vastly different. When we introduce the principles of original play into cultural play, however, and play for the sake of playing, rather than for the sake of winning, cultural play itself can be transformed and become much more enjoyable.

Merely as a personal preference I choose to use the word authentic play rather than original play.

Since I did my first workshop with Fred in 1990, play changed my life. For six years I played once a week at the Hatfield Montessori Preschool in Pretoria, and since I left in 2009 I still play there whenever I go to Pretoria. During my time there Thursdays officially became ‘play-day’ (although the kids called it ‘Douwe-day’). In my books and blogs I relate some of the amazing healing we saw as a result of this play. Today Shan, the directress of the school, is convinced that, in addition to its therapeutic effect, play actually increases the kids’ performance at school. This is in full agreement with scientific research that has seen the light the last two decades or so.

The moment I learnt about original play, I grasped its spiritual significance.

When I start playing with children, aggression usually features prominently. It’s amazing how much aggression there already is in little children today when they come to preschool for the first time. Quite a few schools either do not accept or expel children as young as three years because they cannot cope with their behaviour.

Apart from specific therapeutic effects at the preschool in Pretoria, we saw the considerable effect that regular play had of lowering the levels of aggression. When I missed one session we could see the effects the next week. Even more so after school holidays.

The power of authentic play lies in the metamessages (the underlying messages). We know from experience that, if somebody says to me “I love you” while his or her body indicates a complete lack of love, it is the message of the body that we believe; not the words. It is the same with play. In my talks and workshops I used to demonstrate this physically with a volunteer, but even when they knew exactly what was going to happen, some of these volunteers reacted with such distress to the double message I was giving on purpose that I discontinued the particular demonstration. Double messages are extremely powerful: either highly empowering or highly disempowering (depending on the nature of the metamessage).

childrenWhen we play authentically, our actions send the consistent underlying messages, “You are valuable” and “There is nothing to fear”, even when the actions we use in play (such as chasing) would otherwise denote aggression. In fact, it is the apparent contradiction between messages and metamessages that causes authentic play to have such a powerful effect.

That effect is the development of a sense of self-worth. Self-worth is very different from self-esteem or self-image. ‘Self-esteem’ implies that there is one part of me that esteems another. ‘Self-image’ similarly implies that one part of me has a good image of another part of me. This duality is typical of the ego. ‘Self-worth’, however, implies without any duality that I experience myself as worthy – which of course I am. Experiencing a sense of worth is the same as realising that I am one with God.

A Course in Miracles (ACIM) is summarised by the following three sentences:

Nothing real can be threatened
Nothing unreal exists
Herein lies the peace of God

What this refers to is that only Love, which is what we truly are, is real. Anything that is not Love, including aggression or violence, is a form of fear. Fear is not who we truly are. When I play with children, I am now at a stage where I virtually don’t notice the aggression anymore; I see only the inherent perfection and Love of the child I play with. In my behaviour this is reflected as actions that neutralise the aggressive behaviour while simultaneously demonstrating affection. A typical example would be a ‘boxer’s hug’: While it prevents the child from hitting, it is simultaneously an embrace that says, “I love you!”

This, of course, is nothing less than forgiveness; the essence of the teachings of Jesus.

We all know the ‘golden rule’: Do to others what you want done to yourself. A Course in Miracles clarifies this further: What you do to others you do to yourself. You receive what you give. Nowhere have I found a better practical demonstration of this principle than in authentic play. Like many parents who have done workshops in original play, I have seldom experienced such deep bonding with other human beings as during this kind of play.

SebastianOne of the manifestations of this was the children’s response when I arrived for my weekly session at the preschool. When one of them saw my car, s/he would run through the school shouting repeatedly, “Douwe’s here!” Then most of the school would come running to the gate, chanting my name. As I approached the frenzy increased. It could take me up to ten minutes to pass through the gate as every child wanted to be picked up, hugged or just touched. What a demonstration of love!

What they responded to was not this wonderful ego called ‘Douwe’, but effectively an unconscious recognition of the Love that all of us are, projected onto me. Anybody can have this effect, and many do, and nobody is left untouched by it. The only requirement is that we get in touch with who we really are and learn to play from that level.

Often during play sessions I lose all sense of time and the world around me as I go into a state of being known as the zone or flow. It is a state of absolute bliss in which I am absolutely present in the moment, oblivious of the rest of the world and in tune with the children I play with, and act with such intuition and sensitivity that it is almost as if something is playing through me. At such times I know that all is one. I am convinced that this is the state of being that Jesus called the ‘kingdom of heaven’.

A child once said to Fred, “Play is when we don’t know that we are different.”

Ultimately authentic play is nothing less than love in action: we give and receive love. Because we act from and respond only to what is real in terms of ACIM, ignoring the illusion of aggression, a deep level of trust develops, and the children feel safe. As they gain a sense of safety and feeling valued, they lose their need to be aggressive. Once again the principle stated by Wolfgang von Goethe applies: “If you can accept who I am not, I will become who I am”.

If, on the other hand, I were to respond to aggression with statements such as “Don’t hit me” or “You are hurting me”, or worse, with physical retaliation, I am putting myself above, and therefore present myself as better than the child. This attitude has its origin in the ego. The child’s ego feels threatened and the child feels that s/he needs to be on guard. Gone is the safety and the trust, and hence the very basis – and therefore the effects – of authentic play. Hence the well-known principle “What you resist, persists”.

You cannot fight darkness; you can only dispel darkness by switching on – or being – the light.

In authentic play we experience the state of trust-faith-love-bliss: the ‘kingdom of heaven’. That is why I prefer the term authentic play: during this kind of play we are who we truly are – authentic.

The power of play

In a lion park near Johannesburg Kevin Richardson developed a relationship with semi-wild lions. He plays with lions, and has been featured on news programmes all over the world. Here is one of the videos that he features in.

Kevin Richardson 2Whereas some have been very critical of Kevin, accusing him of ‘interfering with nature’ and the like, many others experience him as a kind of superhuman who has managed to transcend the dangerous nature of lions to be able to play with them. Kevin is not superhuman – he is divinely human – as all of us are. He has discovered the power of original play.

Jesus said, “Anybody can do what I do”. How many of us really believe this? Here we are a bit closer to ‘reality’. Anybody could do what Kevin does – if they understand authentic play. Not just intellectually, but at a deep level of being. I stress this, because if we were to enter Kevin’s lion enclosure without this understanding, we would probably be torn to pieces. Kevin himself mentions in his book Part of the Pride how he once got attacked when he was not in the right state of mind.

Fred Donaldson has often played with wolves in the same way that Kevin does with lions, and has actually played with lions too. In his book Playing by Heart he mentions an incident where a lion took his head in his mouth and gently played with him. There are a few of us worldwide who do ‘original play’, and I have no doubt that any of us would be able to do the same. Such is the power of original play. It is my wish to do so one day.

The human ego perceives the ego as strength and love as weakness. What Jesus and others came to point out was that it is the other way round. The ego is fearful when it sees true strength, and this fear often manifests as attack. That is why those who think they know sometimes criticise or attack Kevin. Our religion and science has been based largely on fear. To understand original play is to understand that there is another reality; fearless and much, much more powerful. Kevin Richardson, Fred Donaldson (Playing by Heart), Shaun Ellis (The Man Who Lives with Wolves), Lawrence Anthony (The Elephant Whisperer), Anna Breytenbach and many others are demonstrating to us that there is another way of looking at nature that is a direct pointer to our salvation from guilt and fear.

References on play


Fred Donaldson – Playing by Heart: The Vision and Practice of Belonging.

Stuart BrownPlay: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul.

Joseph Chilton Pearce The Biology of Transcendence.

Michael Mendizza and Joseph Chilton PearceMagical Parent Magical Child: The Art of Joyful Parenting.


James Prescott Body Pleasure and the Origins of Violence.
Fred Donaldson Fred Donaldson Interview with Ursula Fournier on Mütterblitz
Original Play – The Foundation for learning and Development in Children
Peace is Child’s Play
Interview with Michael Mendizza


National Geographic DVD – The Power of Play (Featuring Fred Donaldson and others).


Touch the Future
A general collection of authors whose work relates to natural ways of child-rearing, including play

National Institute for Play
A website dedicated to promoting play

The Alliance for Childhood
An organisation dedicated to conveying the importance of play in childhood and stressing the importance of re-introducing play in schools

Internet Videos

Dr Ken Ginsburg and the American Academy of Pediatrics – Prescription for Play!

Original Play (Fred Donaldson)

Free Spirit programme featuring Linda Copley (Original Play)

Authentic play with Douwe van der Zee
Part 1
Part 2

Part 3

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