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Children’s Play Becomes Work When You Get in the Way. Let Them Be.

“In today’s world there is such a focus on a child’s academic abilities that the social is becoming obsolete. I have seen children as young as 2 years of age who know their entire alphabet, the sound each letter makes and numbers up to 10. Parents are so proud of their child that they are “sooo smart”. However, the same child does not know how to play by himself—even for a few minutes—is constantly seeking approval from their parents, and has the highlight of their day being what they refer to as ‘lesson time’—which is an app on a tablet—because that is when they get to spend time with mom or dad.” ~ Early Childhood Educator 

Play does not have a beginning and ending. It is a fluid, continuous state of being, a way of engaging and learning about the world that has no end at all, if we allow it to be such. But when we turn play into something, when we structure it too much with our need to direct it and have outcomes achieved, play is no longer play for play’s sake; rather, it becomes work. 

Many say that “play is the work of children”. Let me make this very clear: play is not the work of children; it is the play of children. We adults project our need for controls and measures and outcomes and seriousness onto play and turn it into work, into what it is unequivocally not for children. We adultify play and, as such, belittle it, disrespect its beauty, innocence, wisdom and power which, over time, causes children to lose their free unadulterated nature. They believe, on some level, that the fluidity of playfulness, the fluidity that is their true nature, is inadequate. 

Play is play until we take it away, until we make the child an extension of our own ego, our need for results and effort and pride and accomplishments. We want our little Johnny to grow up to be a star performer, to get into the best university, to absolutely make it… to make us look like excellent parents and teachers worthy of praise. But at a cost. The authenticity of playfulness is taken away, including its derivatives of imagination, creativity, wonder, presence and sociability. We no longer love the child simply for who he is, but more for what he does—for the results of play. Love becomes conditional, outcome-oriented, and children feel it. Yes it is love to prompt and encourage, but we forget that love is also the gift of letting people be and trusting their moment-to-moment unfolding; of simply being with them in their fluid world by offering them our unconditional presence. 

This is difficult, for play is chaotic, messy and unpredictable; it is without direction; and, generally speaking, our tolerance for ambiguity, risk taking, flow and disorder is low. Don’t forget adults control kids for a reason—as an expression of their own self-control and need for certainty. We structure children for the same reasons we fear letting ourselves loose on the dance floor, dreaming beyond “reality, sharing our creative accomplishments, and unbridledly feeling our feelings.

So, let’s shape these kids into our own likeness by shaping play, by ensuring their train parts line up nice and neat, just like in “real life”; by showing them how and what to color; by limiting their joy of getting dirty in the playground and climbing trees. Let’s create the rules for them that we see in the working world, the ones needed to “make it”, the ones that conveniently shape our self-imposed constraints and keep us comfortably distant from the wild vulnerability of our playful spirit. 

Research suggests doing otherwise:

“We found that play environments where children could take risks promoted increased play time, social interactions, creativity and resilience,” said Mariana Brussoni, lead author of the study, and assistant professor in UBC’s School of Population and Public Health and Department of Pediatrics. “These positive results reflect the importance of supporting children’s risky outdoor play opportunities as a means of promoting children’s health and active lifestyles.” 

And then there is this article by Adam Grant of the New York Times with this poignant piece of research:

“One study compared the families of children who were rated among the most creative 5 percent in their school system with those who were not unusually creative. The parents of ordinary children had an average of six rules, like specific schedules for homework and bedtime. Parents of highly creative children had an average of fewer than one rule.”   

Play is, in its purest sense, intrinsically motivated; meaning, the desire and impulse to play arises from the child. When this is so, play is not a means to an end, but rather simply a joyful means. However, when we over-structure, offer too many rules, and even offer reward—when play becomes extrinsically motivated—play becomes less about the means, and more about the end. Eyes are over there, not here, as minds concern themselves about doing it right, getting praise, avoiding judgment and criticism, etc. Play then becomes work. 

We see this in how so many adults relate to their jobs. When a job feels primarily like work, as it so often does, then our 9am-5pm ritual becomes about the paycheck and pension, and getting to that Friday night glass of wine and relaxing weekend. Without the feeling of joy, the autonomy of imagination, the room to explore and share ideas—the freedom to be intrinsically motivated—five out of seven days a week are experienced, in large part, as a means to an end. That’s approximately 20,000 days in our life. 

Is this what we want for children? 

In a classic field experiment conducted in 1973, three groups of 3-5 year olds were asked to draw a picture using felt-tipped colored pens. One group was told that they would be getting a “good player” certificate for drawing their picture. The second group was asked to draw a picture with no mention of a reward, but was surprised with the certificate after completing. And in the third group there was no mention of a reward and none was given. 

The results were quite telling. Judged by a panel of evaluators who did not know what groups the drawings came from, those drawings received from the group expecting a reward were deemed as being of significantly lower quality than those from the other two groups. Not only that, but the children expecting rewards drew for approximately half the amount of time in comparison to those who had no extrinsic motivation. 

Even rewards can get in the way and take the play out of play, for now our creative expression and interests arise less from the present moment and, instead, are held captive, in part, by the future. Yet, authentic creativity and fulfillment arise when consumed by the ever unfolding curious here and now, as children consistently demonstrate in their play.

“The supreme accomplishment is to blur the line between work and play.” ~ Arnold Toynbee

Another example of the importance of getting out of the way for the sake of play and natural learning comes from this Early Child Educator, and is in the context of learning colors: “Teachers have this idea that they need to teach colors instead of incorporating this into play. Instead of any methodology of teaching children colors, one might simply say, ‘Pass me the blue crayon, or look at the blue sky.’” In other words, learn on the fly, learn as part of play, trust learning to arise through the child’s natural interests and impulses, just as we trust the child to learn to walk and speak and eat and poop.

If you need an extra reminder about the power of play, here are a few things children learn that naturally arise from playing with blocks… and this is just blocks

(Image courtesy of Let the Children Play

Imagine how much children learn through painting, and making mud pies, and exploring the woods, and….

“For a small child there is no division between playing and learning; between the things he or she does ‘just for fun’ and things that are ‘educational.’ The child learns while living and any part of living that is enjoyable is also play.” ~ Penelope Leach

Separate play from learning and we raise little workers. We compartmentalize play just as we separate our workweek from the weekend, personal from professional, school from life. Essentially, we ready children for the Monday to Friday slog to feed our heavy consumerist industrial Western model that increasingly operates separate from the natural world.

In separation consciousness the child’s experience becomes less about attuning to and playfully riding the impulses of what wants to emerge in any give moment, less about allowing the “curriculum” to organically unfold from the inside out through their spirit, brain, heart, hands, feet, eyes and ears; and, instead, the child becomes more self-conscious, aware of what needs to happen, less natural, influenced they are by outside agendas. Future separates the child from the freedom of present-moment flow. External agendas divide children from inner desire and natural learning instincts. Less are children simply enjoying for the sake of joy, for now they are more calculating, thinking about structures and specifics, living in their heads, separate from their hearts. 

As such, over time, and on many levels, we teach children not to trust themselves, including their desires, instincts, intuition, imagination and social and emotional capacity. They learn to grant greater power to what they do/accomplish than who they are and how they feel; and they externalize their control to authority figures that appear to know more than they do. Consider the long-term impact of this, especially in a world that desperately needs intrinsically motivated individuals embodying qualities that play teaches.

“Those things you learn without joy you will forget easily.” ~ Finnish saying 

So let’s remember that play is a process, not a product, a means, not an end. It is, at its heart, a being, not a doing. Let’s be conscious of our need to formalize and contain what is inherently unstructured, including the human spirit. Let’s be aware of how we remove uncertainty out of learning, the uncertainty children would do well to play with given our increasingly uncertain world. And let’s allow children to remain relatively untamed, their native mercurial wild spirit set free, the one that, not coincidentally, thrives in wide open natural settings—the wild.

“A study of 337 rural 8-11 year olds revealed that even when there was a relative abundance of natural surroundings in their lives, more exposure to nature was still better. The study found that regardless of a family’s socioeconomic status, the greener the home surroundings, the more resilient children appeared to be against stress and adversity. The protective effect of nature was strongest for the most vulnerable children who experienced the highest levels of stressful life events.” ~ Children and Nature | Nature Rocks Education 

We’d do well to be ardent students of nature, of how it intelligently unfolds itself of its own accord. I’m reminded of what Chinese Spiritual Teacher Lao Tzu wrote: “Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” What if we viewed children from this lens, and consider that they are naturally intelligent expressions of the Creative Cosmos, much like daffodils, beavers and stars are. Perhaps we’d worry less about what they have done all day, and be more curious about how they have enjoyed themselves and simply been in playful process. 

“The moment I decided to follow instead of lead, I discovered the joys of becoming part of a small child’s world.” ~ Janet Gonzalez-Mena

What a tremendous gift; a win-win: We get to stand back more, observe, listen, be curious and relax, instead of worrying and micromanaging endless tedious agendas; and the child has more room to grow and develop at their individual pace, in their unique way,… and most importantly, play!

A final study for you: 

“In the 1970s, the German government sponsored a large-scale comparison in which the graduates of 50 play-based kindergartens were compared, over time, with the graduates of 50 academic direct-instruction-based kindergartens. Despite the initial academic gains of direct instruction, by grade four the children from the direct-instruction kindergartens performed significantly worse than those from the play-based kindergartens on every measure that was used. In particular, they were less advanced in reading and mathematics and less well adjusted socially and emotionally.” ~ Early Academic Training Produces Long-Term Harm | Peter Gray, via Psychology Today 

And a little daily mantra, if it helps: Get out of the way and let children play!

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Related training:
Remembering to Play ~ Inspiring Joy, Freedom and Self-Care
Teacher as Leader and Learner ~ Inspiring Engaged Co-Creative Learning

Related reading:
Let the Fire Burn ~ Nurturing the Creative Spirit of Children
Remembering the Soulfulness of Play ~ Trusting the Intelligence of Play to Raise a Child
We Over-Educate Children Because We Over-Think and Are Afraid to Feel
The Power of Letting Kids Play at School ~ A Success Story for Students and Teachers
Re-Imagining Education ~ Awakening the Gifts and Purpose Inherent in Each Child

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