Playworlds, portals and airlocks between timescales: Generating hope in Brooklyn, early April, 2020

By Beth Ferholt,

In a late March letter in The Guardian, called A letter to the UK from Italy: this is what we know about your future, Francesca Melandri writes about a path of time, with Italy ahead of the UK on this path.I have been thinking lately, instead, about Winnicott’s transitional object. I have been thinking that it is the juxtaposion of differently moving times that creates hope, and maybe human life itself. 

Winnicott writes of play: 

Whereas inner psychic reality has a kind of location in the mind or in the belly or in the head or somewhere within the bounds of the individual’s personality, and whereas what is called external reality is located outside these bounds, playing and cultural experience can be given a location if one uses the concept of the potential space between the mother and the baby. (1971, p. 53, as quoted in Schechner, 1985, p. 110)

Richard Schechner refers to Winnicott’s transitional object as the blanket or stuffed animal that is the first “not-me,” representing the mother (primary caretaker) when she (he) is absent (pp. 111-112).  For those of us who believe that to be human is to be social, such that there is no such thing as an individual human—this transitional object is the first connect to another.  

We are born alone.  We die alone.  And the trick is to make connections.

“So, what exactly is happening here?” is the question I asked myself, which led me to return to Melandri’s letter and Winnicott.  I feel this sense of desperate loneliness when I talk to my friends and colleagues who are not in Brooklyn right now. And then I feel OK, more OK than I have felt at any other time since March 10. It is a pattern that is repeating itself over and over in the past few weeks. And it is exhausting.

I have come to understand what is happening through my playworlds work, as an airlock between time scales. I will use the rest of this short piece to attempt to explain this phrase and its importance to me, now. To start, playworlds (Lindqvist, 1995; Marjanovic-Shane, 2011) are a form of intergenerational play in which both generations develop. That sounds like life, and it almost is, except that we use stories to motivate the play and the result is art-play, not life. Children, teachers, researchers and artists “bring (a story) to life” (Linqvist, 1995, p. 72) in the classroom.

These stories ask questions that both children and adults feel compelled to know the answers to—or, in Japan, my impression has been that the playworlds encompass/generate art that is beautiful, meaningful and life-changing to adults and children alike. We do this to trap the adults in play, as, because they are adults, they do not naturally stay in play. The adults want the playworlds to continue so that their own development will take place, so they must avoid being excluded from play, as this would destroy the playworld (which is intergenerational play, by definition), and so the adults go along with the play (as breaking the play frame is a sure way to find oneself excluded by children from play, always). These “trapped” (Ferholt and Schuck, forthcoming) adults then find themselves playing instead of imagining as they usually do. According to Vygotsky (1978, 2004), in play these adults become dependent on “pivots” to be “not not” (Schechner, 1985) the things they cannot usually be: “I (when not in a playworld) imagine the things I cannot be. I do not
BE the things I cannot be. In the PW (playworld) I can BE a witch” (Michael, a teacher in a playworld, as quoted in Ferholt, 2009, p. 16).

One of the most interesting pivots in the playworlds that I have been observing over the last 18 years and five locations (in California, New York City, Sweden, Finland and Japan) is the portal. This is the object in the playworld that is a key entryway to the story motivating the playworld, and, when manifested in a playworld itself, takes playworld actors/people in between the time of the classroom, the time of the playworld, and back again. For instance, for C. S. Lewis (1950), the wardrobe connects two worlds, each with a different time scale, and the children can pass between the two even though years in one will equal only moments in the other. The wardrobe is a space in which one walks and walks, first through coats that smell of mothballs and then onto crunching snow.  The two photos below represent such a wardrobe/portal in the US Narnia playworld (Ferholt, 2009). Such a portal works as a buffer, keeping the two times from clashing, or crashing against each other.

(As an aside, the children in my life and work have been playing a lot with their stuffed animals, even the third graders and even through their school Zoom class meetings. This may have been what led me to think of Winnicott. And many, many of these same children—with whom I now spend even more time than usual, so their work/play does merge with my own work more so than ever and in many ways—have also become obsessed with magic. Magicians perform a sort of feat opposite to those that transitional objects achieve. They place the real and the imaginary in the same space, but instead of a buffer they create a clash: “Magic challenges our sense of what’s real” (Denby on Houdini, 1920), because magic pushes an imaginary, if not a future, right up against, perhaps even into, our present real.  The buffer is what disappears.)

So, you can have two time scales at once, so long as they don’t clash against each other too hard or too often. A friend and colleague of mine, a Brooklyn teacher who creates playworlds with her students, said that this virus is like being with an infant. We adults all know that feeling when you wake up and expect a world where time went one way, and then it goes another.  Many of us who have stayed home with our infants part time, raising them for several hours of the day and then going to work for the remaining hours, also know that feeling of switching from baby time to adult time, like switching gears awkwardly on a bike, nearly loosing your chain. We also know that this clanking, almost-touching of these two times is generative, it feeds creativity, and we come to crave it and to find it in other ways once the infants grow up. For those without this experience, it is the feeling of vertigo, of realizing that you have loved someone before (see Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Chris Marker’s Jetée).  There is a sensation of the infinite of the moment, like coming out of a dark movie theater into the unexpected evening, having entered the theater in the daylight.  And when you move from your infant-world time into adult-world time, “crash,” it is like a magic trick that makes you gasp and feel off balance: “What?!”

This is how I feel when I wake every morning, now, in April 2020 in Brooklyn.  Crash.  Or when I finish watching a film in the evening and look up to hear, again, the ambulances … “crash.”

So, what is the opposite of this crashing of worlds, of times?  Playworlds are interesting primarily because the things that happen in the imaginary world of a playworld next happen in the real world. Some people have seen the footage that Andy Blunden posted a decade ago for Robert Lecusay and I, which accompanies a piece we published on playworlds in MCA (Ferholt & Lecusay, 2010) (see the video clips here, and here). The child/children sit in the sets of the playworld, but as themselves, with a teacher who is no longer a witch, and we can hear in their classroom discussion that they are still a head taller than themselves, as they had been when they were on the other side of the portal in their playworld.  The teacher knows this and points it out to the children, thus heightening the effect. And the camera is part of the process of building this effect, too, as the teacher looks to me, while I film: “a strange dialogue takes place in which the film’s ‘truth’ rejoins its mythic representation” (Rouch, 1978, p. 58).  This happens all the time in playworlds, as children sit in wardrobes, in suitcases and under cardboard box time machines after a playworld is “finished,” and astound us all with their “future” behavior, which we had come to expect only when we were on the other side of the portal. In other words, the children use the portal to take their playworld selves from the playworld to the classroom, successfully crossing timescales fully intact.

There was a picture drawn by a child near the end of the US Narnia playworld (the one seen on vimeo), a card to the teacher. It depicted this child’s connection to their teacher and it seemed to the adults in the playworld, teacher and researchers, to capture the whole of the playworld, somehow. It floored us, the teacher and me. I think I now, after all these years, understand why. It was drawn by a child in very hard times, who was experiencing a great deal of loss, and it depicted this child’s connection to their teacher.

The opposite of this crashing of worlds, of times, an alternative to the crash, is what this teacher became for this child. Elsewhere (Ferholt and Schuck, forthcoming) I have used the teacher’s term—a CONSTANT—to describe what this card seems to us to portray.  And on my last international trip (my last for how long? forever?), I thought, all of a sudden, that this person, this teacher, a CONSTANT, was himself a portal. He is an airlock that allows this child to sit still, in peace, whole, long enough that when the child is released into an entirely new environment the following year, they take their entire selves with them.

What I mean is that the portal in a playworld is a boundary. John Shotter, who passed away fairly recently, told me when I was 19 years old to focus on boundaries, and I think this is some of the best advice I have ever received. In this gap that is a playworld portal you cleanse yourself of one time so you can enter another time.

What I find literally connects me to the world, now, is to get out of the sticky intimacy and loopy time that is sirens and death notices and my students’ – as teachers (I teach in a school of education) – essential wisdom.  They explain to me and their classmates that they comfort their family members who have endured losses by reminding them that we must feel everyone’s pain of loss together. This is genius. This is right. But it is right like a stopped clock twice a day—only in these crazy times that is Brooklyn, now, is it right.  I’ll explain:

Usually you endure these sad things, death of loved ones, in company. Or you endure together with others in the face of an evil to fight and/or a fear that unites. But here, now, we all stand up on our own—in fact by being alone, isolated—and so we must try really hard to see that we are all connected. (Knowing that this all is the effect of capital greed and disregard for science, end of US democracy, etc., is not uniting just yet.) Of course there is the huge gap between those of us with loving housholds and those alone or worse yet, frozen in a dysfunctional household, but still we all feel this same sickness, it seems (and perhaps it is related to the way us city folk are lonely in the countryside without enough human contact?).

But this is what living life does. It connects us, like a transitional object. The portal allows the two worlds to connect, instead of crashing, by giving us a space between where transportation happens—transportation of the self between timescales (and transformation is communication, I learned this at the UCSD Department of Communication).  

So, for me, when I am stuck in this situation in which trying to feel everyone’s pain as best as we can is—my students are right—the only way for us all to survive with our humanity intact, I feel that I am in a sticky mess. I am forced to try so hard to no longer love my “loved ones” most, or not to do this quite as I usually do, but instead and for my own survival to at least try my hardest to love my neighbor as I do my own. This lack of a usual boundary is disorienting, and unpleasant, in fact it feels sort of like I am dying.

However, some other people, people who are in places where fewer people are loosing family and friends at an alarming rate (50% of my students lost family members in the past month, two colleagues lost adult children, etc.), are not in this primordial goo.  They are still separate in their usual families and communities, and so alive in their usual way.  And when I can rub shoulders with these other people … this is what gives me hope (as writing a letter to UK probably gave Melandri hope).

It is not just hope that there is a world alive out there. I know there was one in our past and probably will be for some period of time, although an altered one, in our future. But rather, it is actually the space between us that gives me hope—and then transfer across this space.

The people who move quickly are the ones who know how to connect. Often these fast movers are preschool teachers, or appreciate preschool teachers, in my worlds.  They reach out with kind words, immediately. They say how they feel for you and “Can I help?” is what they ask, right away. They don’t give you an option to leave. They haul you in, like a parent, or an infant, against your will, to some extent, or at least before you can formulate a protest.

One of my students explained to our class, out of necessity, for her classmates and from her own immediate and past experiences, how mourn on one’s own: You play sad music and cry for a period of time, perhaps a day, and then you stop crying. This activity itself is also a portal, a CONSTANT, in some way, maybe.

“Hello, I am here, it seems that my ship is hemorrhaging people, we are loosing too many to keep track,” I say in my Zoom meetings to people in other times scales. “Hello, I am living life as usual, one loss at a time,” these people say back to me. Are we going to crash? Or is there a way to create a buffer between us and bring some of my pain towards you, and some of your anticipation, which is really a form of hindsight or memory (in reverse), back towards me?

If we can do this, connect our timescales, then I feel some love (or is it hope?).  And the saving connection is not to those who are outside New York’s time now, but rather to the act of communicating itself. Because we, here, now, have lost our buffers, our portals. We don’t need them any more. We are stuck together in our isolation and loss. Closer than ever even while 100% not, more than ever before, as we are experiencing exponentially what we in the US experience all the time: that a huge percentage of some populations, and not of others, is disappearing.

This creation of a connection between my own and others’ timescales feels to me, at this time, like art feels to me: There is a feeling of great relief when I see a thread emerge, tying us briefly together, across a chasm between our experiences of time. And, actually, maybe Melandri is right: If we in New York City are not your (insert the name of any country dealing with this pandemic much better than the US is, so most countries) future now, and I think and hope we are not, there will be another go soon enough, I am afraid. 

In any case, this process reminds me of life. It is so life-giving to greet across our timescales, as Melandri does. “Hello to the person who is as young as I once was.” “This is what it looks like when you are older.” That conversation is how humans are raised, and how our species has survived in the past. So, really, to be connected globally despite our differences and distances is humanizing.

This is a good thing as all this dying and illness in isolation, in New York City, as in Italy and many other places across the globe, is not humanizing.  

I’ll end with an image of “Your Prison” by Alexander Brodsky that is haunting me, or guiding me, now, more than ever, as a (someways) static model of hope. “In his works, analysis of the past, present and future are not split into independent inquiries, but are instead lodged (though only implicitly) within each other and carried out in light of their synthetic amalgamation infused with the ethics of solidarity and social justice” (Stetsenko on Marx, not Brodsky, 2019, p. 6).  This is what hope looks like to me, now, and the pandemic has helped me to see why: This piece shows me connections across space and time, and I think that in this piece it is home that is the portal/airlock/CONSTANT. 

Brodky’s installation “Your Prison”

(In the month it took for my April musings on hope to be edited down for this site, it has come to seem to me that they are no longer relevant. The insanity-inducing lack of humanity in the talk of the deaths past and deaths future, which the US is causing by ending social distancing prematurely, is all encompassing, now, in Brooklyn, early May, 2020. Still, the above is a record of what has just passed.)


Denby, D. (1920.) Harry Houdini and the Art of Escape. The New Yorker, March 30. (

Ferholt, B. (2009). Adult and Child Development in Adult-Child Joint Play: the          Development of Cognition, Emotion, Imagination and Creativity in Playworlds. University of California, San Diego. 

Ferholt, B., and Lecusay, R. (2010).  Adult and child development in the zone of   proximal development: Socratic dialogue in a Playworld. Mind Culture and     Activity, 17:1, 59-83.

Ferholt, B. & Schuck, C. (forthcoming). THE CONSTANT or Person-as-Place, and Research-Life: Sustaining Collaboration between University-Based and Field Based Co-Researchers.  In P. Dionne & A. Jornet (Eds.), Doing CHAT in the Wild: From-the-field Challenges of a Non-Dualist Methodology. Leiden: Brill.

Lewis, C. S. (1950). The lion, the witch and the wardrobe. New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Co. 

Lindqvist, G., (1995). Lekens estetik. En didaktisk studie om lek och kultur i förskolan.    Forskningsrapport 95: 12, SKOBA, Högskolan i Karlstad. (The Aesthetics of   Play. A Didactic Study of Play and Culture   in Preschools. Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis. Uppsala studies in Education 62. Stockholm/Sweden: Almqvist & Wiksell International.)

Marjanovic-Shane, A., Ferholt, B., Miyazaki, K., Nilsson, M., Rainio, A. P., Pesic, M. &  Beljanski Ristic,L. (2011). Playworlds: An Art of development. In C. Lobman & B. O’Neill (Eds.), Play and Culture.  Play and Culture Studies, Vol. 11 (pp. 331). Maryland: University Press of America.

Rouch, J. (1978). On the vicissitudes of the self: The possession dancer, the magician, the sorcerer, the filmmaker, and the ethnographer. Studies in the Anthropology of Visual Communication, 5(1), 2-8.

Schechner, R. (1985).  Between theater and anthropology. Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press.

Stetsenko, A. (2020). Hope, political imagination, and agency in Marxism and beyond: Explicating the transformative worldview and ethico-ontoepistemology. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 52:7, 726-737.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 

Vygotsky, L. S. (2004). Imagination and creativity in childhood. Journal of Russian and East European Psychology, 42(1), 7-97. 

Winnicott, D. W. (1971). Playing and reality. New York: Basic Books.


La Jetée. 1962. Chris Marker. France. 28 mins.

Vertigo. 1958. Alfred Hitchcock.  United States.  2 hr. 9 mins. 

About the Author

Beth Ferholt is an Associate Professor in the Department of Early Childhood and Art Education at Brooklyn College, City University of New York.  She is an affiliated faculty member in the Program in Urban Education, CUNY Graduate Center, and the School of Education and Communication, Jönköping University.  She is a member of the International Playworld Network and her areas of research include play, creativity and imagination, and early childhood education and care in which children are understood to be culture and knowledge creators

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