The Playfulness of Anne Frank

Today (June 12) is my birthday — and also the birthday of Anne Frank, who would have been 89 years old today. In my book Lifelong Kindergarten, I describe how the story of Anne Frank provided me, unexpectedly, with new insights into the nature of play and playfulness. Here’s an excerpt…

Anne Frank (1929–1945)

In the 1990s, an annual conference called Doors of Perception brought together researchers, designers, and technologists from around the world to discuss the implications of the Internet and other emerging technologies. The conference was held in Amsterdam, and it focused on a different theme each year. In 1998, the theme of the year was “Play,” and I was invited to make a presentation about my work.

The conference showcased the latest computer games, electronic toys, and virtual reality systems. Conference participants flocked around an interactive demonstration featuring the popular video game character Lara Croft. In my presentation, I talked about my group’s work on LEGO Mindstorms and other electronic construction kits, and I argued that “playing” with technology should involve not just interacting with it, but designing, creating, experimenting, and exploring with it.

After my presentation, I decided to take a break from the conference and walked to the Anne Frank House, where teenager Anne Frank and her family had hidden in a secluded annex of the house to escape the Nazi persecution of Jews during World War II. I felt uneasy about skipping part of the conference. The following day, I was scheduled to participate in a wrap-up session to reflect on what we had learned throughout the conference, so I felt like I was shirking my responsibility by missing part of the conference. But I really wanted to visit the Anne Frank House. During my childhood, growing up in a Jewish household, I had heard many stories about the persecution of Jews during World War II, and I wanted to learn more and to feel a more direct connection.

My visit to the Anne Frank House was full of surprises. It turned out that Anne Frank and I have the same birthday (June 12), and she was born the same year as my mother (1929). But by far the biggest surprise was that my trip to the Anne Frank House was totally relevant to the play theme of the conference. It turned out that I wasn’t shirking my responsibility at all; indeed, I felt that I learned more about the true nature of play at the Anne Frank House than at the conference.

People generally don’t associate Anne Frank with play. Anne was in hiding for two years, from mid-1942 to mid-1944, from age 13 to age 15, with no chance to go outside and play. In her diary, Anne describes herself as “desperately unhappy,” and writes that “we’ve almost forgotten how to laugh.” She was aware that many of her friends and relatives might be imprisoned in concentration camps or no longer alive. Anne took medication “to fight the anxiety and depression” but reported “it doesn’t stop me from being even more miserable the next day.”

Despite all of this, Anne’s playful spirit shines through in her diary. At one point, Anne wanted to try ballet but didn’t have appropriate shoes, so she redesigned her gym shoes into ballet slippers. For St. Nicholas Day, she wrote a pun-filled poem and hid presents for other family members in their shoes. Anne’s mind was alive with imagination. “I don’t think building sand castles in the air is such a terrible thing to do,” she wrote in her diary.

Although living in a cramped space and beset with sadness and scarcity, Anne was constantly experimenting, taking risks, trying new things, testing the boundaries. In my view, those are the essential ingredients of play. Play doesn’t require open spaces or expensive toys; it requires a combination of curiosity, imagination, and experimentation.

At times, Anne Frank lost her ability to laugh, but she never lost her playful spirit. Throughout her diary, Anne contrasts herself with her older sister Margot. “Margot is such a goody-goody, perfection itself, but I seem to have enough mischief in me for the two of us put together,” wrote Anne. “I’ve always been the clown and mischief maker of the family.”

I sometimes refer to play as the most misunderstood of the four P’s of creative learning (Projects, Passion, Peers, Play). People often associate play with laughter, fun, and having a good time. It’s easy to understand why: Play often involves all those things. But that description misses what’s most important about play — and why play is so important to creativity. Creativity doesn’t come from laughter and fun: It comes from experimenting, taking risks, and testing the boundaries. Or, in Anne Frank’s words, being a mischief maker.

Throughout history, philosophers and psychologists have recognized the value and importance of play:

You can learn more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation. (Plato)
We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing. (George Bernard Shaw)
In play, it is as though the child were trying to jump above the head of his normal behavior. (Lev Vygotsky)
Play is the work of the child. (Jean Piaget)
Through play, more than any other activity, children achieve mastery of the external world. (Bruno Bettelheim)
Toys and games are the preludes to serious ideas. (Charles Eames)

I’ve been particularly inspired by John Dewey, who shifted the focus from play (the activity) to playfulness (the attitude). He explained: “Playfulness is a more important consideration than play. The former is an attitude of mind; the latter is a passing outward manifestation of this attitude.” In my visit to the Anne Frank House, it was Anne’s playfulness (not particular play activities) that made the biggest impression on me. When I think about Anne Frank, I certainly don’t think about fun and games — but I do think about her playful way of engaging with the world.

I continued to think about Anne Frank’s playfulness as I returned to the Doors of Perception conference. For the rest of the conference, I immersed myself in new video games and electronic toys. But when it came time for the final panel of the conference, I didn’t talk about those innovative technologies. Instead, I explained how I had learned more about the essence of play and playfulness from Anne Frank than from any of the new technologies at the conference.