Brilliant Players

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln

By Rosemary Arnold,
Education Program Manager, Conner Prairie Interactive History Park

“As adults, sometimes we get too wrapped up in the world to look at play as anything other than a distraction.”

When you work in the history field, you quickly learn that human nature doesn’t really change. No matter what events burst forth around you, people basically need the same things. You need a way to process your emotions, to mentally recharge, to escape from being so serious all the time. As humans, we simply need to play. That is why I was so pleased to see that this year’s theme for Spirit & Place Festival is “PLAY.” Now Indianapolis will get to spend 10 whole days having a little more fun.

“For these men, play became a way for them to cope with the very real challenges they faced. It gave them the freedom to simply not be serious for a while so they could later do their work with clarity and focus.”

Some of the greatest minds in our history viewed play as an essential part of their lives. Thomas Jefferson built a room at Monticello strictly for the purpose of “the merriments of our family companions.”[i] He was a great fan of board games and word games and often played with his grandchildren on the front lawn. As President, Jefferson still took time for chess matches.

Abraham Lincoln was well-known to indulge his sons in all sorts of games and make-believe. Even after he became President, with the weight of the Civil War on his shoulders, he still allowed his sons to burst into his office and pull him into whatever game they might be playing. His playfulness extended all the way to pardoning a Christmas turkey which had become one of Tad’s favorite pets.

For these men, play became a way for them to cope with the very real challenges they faced. It gave them the freedom to simply not be serious for a while so they could later do their work with clarity and focus. And these men aren’t unique. Civil War soldiers, for example, spent much of their time off the battlefield playing baseball and cards, running races, and playing practical jokes on one another. They needed a diversion from the very real fact that they might not make it home.

Play is instinctual. It’s something children do naturally, without any prompting from anybody else. As adults, sometimes we get too wrapped up in the world to look at play as anything other than a distraction. I say, let’s follow the example of Jefferson, Lincoln, and countless others in our history who embraced the distraction, because even the most brilliant minds need time to play.


[i] Looney, J. Jefferson, ed. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.

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