The good people down at Commonwealth Academy recently put me in touch with Dr. Stuart Brown, who is the founder of the National Institute of Play. Dr. Brown has a new book coming out in March entitled Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. I was lucky enough to receive an advance copy of the book, and I am totally enthralled.
As many of you may know, I produce the LD Podcast, a podcast about learning and learning disabilities. As a result of interviewing experts for almost three years now, I’ve been struck by the emergence of several themes. One of the more critical themes is that it’s important for all kids, but especially those who struggle in school, to find something that makes them special. And I would predict that most of us start to discover what makes us tick through what we enjoy doing most, and that often comes out of our play.
In the opening chapters of Dr. Brown’s book, he discusses how some of the most successful engineers had a common thread to their childhood- they were all children who loved to take things apart, put them back together and experimenting in their play. Recent hires didn’t seem to be as creative, innovative, or able to think about possible problems as well as these older engineers who seemed to be able to spot problems before the occured, almost by intuition. When the firm looked at why these generations differed, it showed up in their play histories- the new generation didn’t have the same unstructured play experience.
What seems to make play magical, is that it creates a safe place to test boundaries, explore options- really become a scientist that can experiment, fail, try again, alter- in a low-cost way. And I mean low cost in terms of not damaging social relationships, lower risk of physical harm, and perhaps even monetarily, but let’s leave the money out of it for now.
I just came from a weekend conference where the whole weekend felt like a playdate with friends. It was summer camp kind of fun. We chatted about business, what we were experimenting with, what we were trying, what worked for us. There was teasing, long conversations that were rambling, but served to let people flesh out ideas, opinions and perceptions that had an impact on their peers. People got to verbally joust- not trying to win or beat anyone up- but to share and be silly and connect. I admire all my friends so much more from the experience, and value them all the more- this play is part of bonding, and it’s what holds a community together, even when its members are separated by long distances.
In today’s world, we undervalue the importance of play. Play adds to our ability to problem solve, but it also adds to our joy. There are times to be serious, of course, but a good laugh does so much more for my spirits- it helps me soldier on through some really awful stuff sometimes- it helps me keep going. A brief moment of levity and play is like an instant surge of energy- a positive boost to keep you going. (Why else would email boxes be filled with jokes and memes?) As a parent, Dr. Brown’s book has made me re-think how I try to make sure my kids get enough of this play. We’re starting to mess around with some experiements, spending the down time unplugged a bit more. We’ve always done the family dinner thing, played the Three Things You Did Today game each night, but we also joke and giggle. We’re big teasers, and while it can be fun and silly- a little “don’t take yourself too seriously” jab can also hurt. It helps teach all of us- parents and kids alike, about where those invisible social boundaries lie- what’s funny and what’s mean, how a joke works….It’s also a pretty sophisticated use of language, so it teaches our kids also to think on their feet and they are pretty amazing at getting those jokes rolling- especially the grading system they’ve developed for how bad the grown-up jokes are.
As adults, we seldom get to play as much as we used to as kids. Play can sometimes become work as well- going to the gym can be fun, or it can be a chore, with your frame of mind being what differentiates the two.
Sometimes my work is so enjoyable, it is like play. When things go well, time passes far too quickly, and I feel refreshed and confident afterwards- when it goes badly, I feel drained and beaten up, dreading having to do those things again.
But as an adult, keeping a sense of play and adventure- taking some risks, trying new things, is what keeps me engaged and happy about what I’m trying to accomplish. And what I’m learning from Dr. Brown is that while structured activities for my kids may seem safe and like the highest level of good parenting, the unstructured wrestling, rough and tumble play, the days spent staring at the clouds, the days spent dreaming and doing nothing and having your own fun with whatever’s around may be better for my kids than anything else we do. Taking them places and letting them explore at their pace is so much better than a regimented schedule of activities or a Battan death march through cultural attractions.
I guess I can sum all of this up by telling a brief story. A number of years ago, we were planning a big trip overseas with our kids, who were 3 and 6 at the time. My mom felt it was going to be a “waste” because the kids “wouldn’t appreciate it” yet. And I came to the conclusion I couldn’t judge the value or worthwhile-ness of experiences solely based on whether someone else would appreciate them or not. I would go, have an adventure, and we could decide good or bad afterwards. Pre-judging each experience, hoping for the perfect time to experience all aspects of somewhere else is pointless. Instead, each experience helps shape who we are, and each time we re-visit, we bring new experiences that reframe our point of view- the more important metric is to be able to enjoy what you’re doing, and let the tedium of things be just a chore, nothing more.
After all, if you let such things get in your way, how are you ever going to have any fun and get to go play?