“Some of the secret joys of living are not found by rushing from point A to point B, but by inventing some imaginary letters along the way.” ~Douglas Pagels, These Are the Gifts I’d Like to Give to You.
Play is slowly fading away from our lives. Once a natural part of our existence, play is becoming the shadow of a world increasingly governed by unyielding complexity, technology and expectations.
Society is increasingly trying to compartmentalize play and push it to the side. Just look at how we structure our week. We have weekdays and weekends. Five days are dedicated to work and only two for family and playtime. We have academic learning and play based learning. We have separated play from learning despite the fact that play is the language of children. And we have our professional hat and our personal hat. We feel the need to keep part of our natural Self at home in order to be who we think we ought to be at work.
Separating play, and our playful Self, is like trying to chop Life or nature into pieces. It is a disregard for what is naturally intrinsic and true.
Play is our natural state; it is meant to be infused in every moment. When we play we paint our life from the myriad of colors that is our spirit; we sing the song that our planet longs to hear; and we dance our bodies moving with the rhythms of this moment. We align with and say an emphatic Yes to Life by connecting to, celebrating and expressing the creative power that is our life force.
To deny play is to deny our Self and Life.
Simply put, play is the gateway to our Self; yet it is being removed from the fabric of our society at an alarming rate. By removing play we are losing a part of our Self and our capacity to live joyful and creative lives.
The loss of play is being felt from our early years into adulthood. We are feeling the pressure to be everything but who we authentically are. Children are being raised to be little adults and adults have lost the wisdom and freedom that comes from being child-like. We are placing a greater importance on everything but the personal empowerment and joy that comes with playful expression. “Making it” in our world has superseded enjoying it!
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“We finally move into our destiny when we understand that we are to live in and as adventurous play…perhaps the whole natural world is a party, a festival, and we, the long awaited champagne.” ~Brian Swimme
Take a moment and recall a time when you felt free playing. Chances are you are remembering a time from your childhood, and most likely you are outside and in nature. For our generation, playing outside was the norm. Keeping us from going outside was the exception. We basked in the boundless possibilities of our backyard, forest, creek, fields and neighborhood. We used our imagination to conjure up games, characters and situations. A piece of wood became a sword, a tree became our ladder into the sky, and mud became the key ingredient in many a pie! I was the cowboy and you were my horse. I was the monster and you my prey. And our bodies were actively engaged. Whether it was kick-the-can, hide and seek tag, riding our bike or jumping rope, we nourished our body with regular movement.
Writing these memories down brings a tear to my eye. I feel so much joy when I recall these moments in my life. And yet I also feel sadness when I think about how much of this spontaneous, unstructured play is passing today’s generation of children by.
I offer this article to highlight what I see as being the main demands, distractions and dilemmas that are eroding our playful culture. These ideas are gleaned from the many discussions I have had with the participants in my playshops and keynotes, from reading the stories of others who are challenged by the lack of play, as well as from my own experience as someone who has never lost his playful spirit, yet has succumbed to the pressures and expectations of our world today.
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1. Limiting Beliefs:
At the core of our shrinking play culture is our belief system. Our beliefs create the parameters of our playground of life. In other words, our belief systems govern what we see and allow as possible in our life and the lives of others.
If you were told don’t be silly or grow up enough times when young, your playground of possibilities would soon begin to shrink. Or perhaps your family environment preached work first, play later, or, idle hands are the work of the devil, or, you must work hard to make it, or weakness is bad, or, you have to be responsible. Each of these beliefs engrains itself into our unconscious and soon becomes the paradigm from which we see and operate in the world.
One of the most common beliefs that limits playful expression is it is bad to put myself first. When we believe this to be true we feel guilt when faced with the dilemma of whether or not to say No. It is important to question this belief and learn to say No otherwise people will take advantage of us and we will give more than we receive. Saying No to something we don’t want to do creates the room for us to say Yes to our Self and a playful life.
Children are excellent at saying No and putting themselves first. They have no problem doing something just because it is fun and feels good. Therefore it’s easy to say Yes to play and No to anything that may get in the way of play. The ceaseless “should’s” that clog the adult mind have yet to germinate in the minds of children. They live guilt free and joyfully so!
Children are more instinctual. They act out of impulse rather than rationale. They do without thinking while adults let thinking get in the way of their doing. Adults will come up with all the sound reasons not to be silly, get messy or twirl around. By the time we reach our teens, our minds have become proficient storytellers endlessly painting pictures of uncomfortable outcomes to playful, spontaneous expression. Once governed by the freedom of our playful spirit, our fearful mind soon becomes the master of our life. And thus our playground shrinks.
Another common belief I see blocking play is, I don’t have the time or money. Children do not need or expect as much as we think they do. Perhaps it is us who have forgotten the simple power of just being silly with another for a moment. Maybe we could have a pillow fight, or eat our dessert before the casserole, or see how many books we can balance on our head, or how many times we can twirl around without falling. When I look back at the most joyful memories of my childhood they are not moments that required money or substantive planning, but rather simple moments of connection, goofiness and laughter. A feeling of belonging, of being loved and appreciated.
“Children will not remember you for the material things you provided but for the feeling that you cherished them.” ~ Richard L. Evans
The only great act play requires is the willingness to express our authentic Self. When we do, we invite the authentic Selves of others to come out and play as well.
A key influence on our belief system is the media. The media serves both to inform and persuade our minds – it offers facts that are useful and yet it also amplifies and distorts our perception of reality.
Discerning fact from fiction is a difficult task when the television is a predominant gateway into our community and triggers so many of our fears and concerns. Turn on the news any day of the week and 95% will be negative. Crime rates increasing and unsafe streets will make any parent become more reticent towards letting their child out unmonitored. And with the onslaught of social media and mobile devices, the news and its negativity are more accessible than ever.
While it is natural to fear our streets and be concerned, we need to also remember that fear begets fear – fear from the media creates fearful minds that then look for things to fear. As such, fear has become a palpable force in the collective consciousness of humanity, and the default from which we see our world.
It is a known fact that when you wake up in a good mood you are more likely to see positive things. You’ll see more smiles, happy conversations and beauty. Conversely when you wake in a bad mood you see more negativity in our world. What you see is a reflection of who you are and how you feel.
It is therefore important to discern what is real and what is projected by ourselves. Learn, find out the facts, talk to people while also being aware of your own levels of fear and concern. Fear unchecked can become imbalanced which then creates unnecessary restrictions in the playful lives of children. They end up spending more time indoors or in organized activities and less time in free, unstructured activities that are rich with learning and development.
As an experiment, see what happens when you lower your exposure to the media. Set a goal to watch the news one less day a week. Similarly, if you do watch TV, watch something that inspires you, or leaves you feeling good. Make feeling good a priority and see how this changes your perception and experience of the world.
3. Academic Pressure:
Since the 1990’s a term that has been popularized in our parental and school culture is that of Helicopter Parents. A Helicopter Parent is one who “hovers” over their children so much so that the children are unable to choose for themselves. I have heard numerous stories from my early childhood educator clients on how parents expect their child to have grade 4 academic achievements in preschool. They pressure the teachers and wonder why their little Jonny cannot count to 100 forward and backward in less than 60 seconds.
Helicopter Parents are a symptom of an increasingly complex and challenging world. Since the late 1990’s demands for success have become almost inhumane. It’s harder than ever to get into university, for instance, and the cost of post secondary education is through the roof. I read recently of a student who has been working three jobs, unrelated to his field of study, just to pay off his debt. He estimated he’d be doing this for at least another five years.
With the bar of success being raised higher than ever, there is more pressure on teachers to ensure students meet the expectations of standardized curriculum. So much so that in the United States up to 40% of schools are cutting back and even eliminating recess. They believe greater focus on erudition will give children the competitive advantage they need.
“When we deny children play, we are denying them the right to understand the world.”
~ Erika & Nicholas Christakis
It is natural to feel the pressures of a society rife with competition, debt and uncertainty, and to do whatever we can to best prepare our children. However, there are three key pieces that are being missed when considering the early years of education:
1. Play is the foundation for academic learning because it teaches social and emotional intelligence skills that reading a book and learning to count to 50 cannot. It is our social and emotional wellbeing that is the foundation for using our intellectual capacity in the world. In speaking to one educator, she said that Early Development Instrument scores, used to test children’s problem solving, communication and social/emotional development, are lower than ever. She attributes this to the decline in play.
2. Play is training for our new emerging world. The new world that we are living in requires not just intellectual capacity, but innovation, adaptability, collaboration and the ability to thrive in uncertainty. Yes we need to know that 1 + 1 = 2 (convergent intelligence), but we also need to explore the many imaginative ways we can use blocks or sticks or play dough (divergent intelligence). The world isn’t as linear and predictable as it used to be, and organizations will increasingly be interested to see that job applicants thrive in both convergent and divergent intelligence. It is play that will provide the training for the latter.
3. Play is the heartbeat of children. Play is who children are. It is their language. It is what makes them feel happy, alive, connected with their spirit and to the world around them. We have made success more of a priority than feeling happy. We are training our children to live stressful lives at the cost of their well-being. Let us at the very least let children play because it’s what makes them feel good. At the end of the day isn’t that what we all want?
“When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.” ~John Lennon
“We are raised in a culture that values expertise over exploration.” ~ Nina Wise
One of the greatest gifts I learned through my studies with The Coaches Training Institute was to see people as naturally creative, resourceful and whole. It is our capacity to see others as having innate wisdom within and as not being broken or incomplete in any way.
Ten years ago I was at a clinic with an alternative physician who did energy healing, acupuncture and other non-traditional healing modalities. He told me a story about how a mother brought her child to him to treat because he was not breathing properly. She was deeply concerned for her child who was less than a year old. My practitioner began inspecting for obstructions by placing his finger in the child’s mouth. After poking around for a while he still couldn’t find anything and the child continued to not breathe properly. My practitioner decided to stop for a moment while still having his finger in the child’s mouth. Suddenly the child pushed his finger with his tongue and guided it towards where it needed to go to remove the obstruction. My practitioner followed his lead and within a few seconds the child began breathing properly.
This story demonstrates the wisdom we have within that surpasses all intellect or prior knowledge. We are much more resourceful and intuitive than we give ourselves credit for. We doubt our capacity because we have been trained not to believe it. Throughout our lives we were told what to think and do. Very rarely did our parents, teachers, ministers and employers ask us questions that help us express our intuition or deeper knowing. Very rarely did they say to us, What do you think? What does your intuition say? What does your heart want?
“A teacher is a compass that activates the magnets of curiosity, knowledge and wisdom in the pupils.” ~ Ever Garrison
Children are not being seen as capable which fuels our need to control. We are not trusting that they have wisdom to share and that perhaps they can lead us to new learning. We see them more as empty vessels waiting to be filled rather than vessels of infinite wisdom waiting to be expressed. As such we impose our agenda and limit their creative capacity.
Here is an example of this presented by Stephanie Haines, Toddlers to Tweens: Relearning how to play, Christian Science Monitor:
“The collection of tubing…is part of a study designed by researcher Elizabeth Bonawitz and tests whether the way an object is presented can limit a child’s exploration. If a teacher introduces the toy, which has a number of hidden points of interest – a mirror, a button that lights up, etc. – but tells a child about only one feature, the child is less likely to discover everything the toy can do than a child who receives the toy from a teacher who feigns ignorance. Without limiting instruction from an adult, it seems, a child is far more creative. In other words, adult hovering and instruction, from how to play soccer to how to build the best LEGO city, can be limiting.”
In other words, the more we instruct the less room there is for children to access their innate resourcefulness and learn through playful exploration.
“The principle goal of education is to create men who are capable of doing new things, not simply of repeating what others have done.” ~Piaget
We need to learn to follow the child’s lead and allow the “curriculum” to emerge from their discoveries. Then learning becomes more co-created, a dance between the adult and child’s agenda’s. Through seeing the child as naturally creative, resourceful and whole and allowing their wisdom to shine the adult becomes the student as much as the teacher, ready and willing to learn from the child. And it is here we discover how much we have to learn from children. We may learn how to use a toy in a way we never would have thought of, or they may share a discovery we hadn’t heard before, or we may simply gain an insight into teaching, children or life itself by watching them play away.
Whether we are a teacher, parent or friend, releasing control and just following is not easy. It means embracing uncertainty, collaborating and being open to ways of doing things beyond the familiar. This is what play teaches and this is what our new, emerging world will thrive on.
“Learning and teaching should not stand on opposite banks and just watch the river flow by; instead, they should embark together on a journey down the water. Through an active, reciprocal exchange, teaching can strengthen learning how to learn.” ~ Loris Malaguzzi
5. Low Energy:
Because the trend of both parents working full time jobs continues to increase, the number of hours children spend outside with their parents continues to decrease. Parents just don’t have the energy to manage a full time career and household, and then go outside with their children after work. In a study conducted by Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine researchers found that only 51 percent of children went outside to walk or play once a day with either parent. The demands of our work are creating greater separation within the family unit.
Low energy makes us less motivated to exercise which, according to The American Academy of Pediatrics, affects our willingness to initiate outdoor activities with our children. As stated in this CNN article, “researchers found that mothers who exercised often were more likely to take their kids outdoors, as opposed to those who did not report any exercise.” Children will be more inclined to settle for video games if their parents do not on some level value physical activity and model enjoying the outdoors.
I’m grateful for my parents initiating outdoor playful activities. The outdoors and physical activity was part of our family culture. It became important to me because of my parents’ initiative and participation. We’d go hiking, biking and skiing among many other adventures. It instilled in me a value for active living as well as an appreciation for bonding with my family through our playful excursions.
Yet not all parents have the energy or inclination to be active. Staying at home, lighting a cigarette and watching TV may be their ideal night in. Yet I believe strongly in balance and that too much indoor time is not only unhealthy, but unnatural as well. We are meant to be in nature regularly. It feeds us and reminds of who we are and what is important in life.
The most striking evidence I’ve heard regarding the impact of low energy was given by an aboriginal elder during his keynote address at a conference. He said that on average fathers spend 39 seconds a day connecting with their children, while mothers spend 3 minutes a day. By connecting he meant being present, listening, actively engaging, versus simply telling children to put their shoes on or asking them how their day was by rote. While it is true there are other factors such as low social intelligence skills that would limit one’s capacity to connect, our stressful lives, feeling of overwhelm and unwillingness to be care-free and child-like certainly play a part as well.
“Give children toys that are powered by their imagination, not by batteries.” ~ H. Jackson Brown
If parents are not inclined to initiate or model play, and they feel the streets are unsafe, it is easy and convenient to allow technology to become a substitute playground. Technology is now taking over the minds of children to the point that, as the New York Times reports, they are plugged in on average 7.5 hours a day. When I first read this statistic I found it hard to believe. And then, not too long after, I was reminded that this is the new reality that we live in.
I saw a bunch of children and their friends at a restaurant with their family and all of them were playing video games both inside and continuously as they walked outside. I was startled by this. First I was amazed that the parents would allow this. Then I felt sad that the children were so entranced by their machines that they were missing out on the experience of connecting with their family and friends. I just couldn’t fathom this being part of my childhood.
While it is true that technology teaches analytical and problem-solving skills, it will never replace that outdoors as a source for creative and relationship skill building. It’s also not good for our health. I was told recently that sitting for hours in front of our computer is the new “smoking.” Meaning that being stationary for a long period of time is worse for our health than we thought. Thirty years ago when you were at your desk and you needed a file you’d have to go to your filing cabinet. If you needed to research data you’d have to find an encyclopedia (remember those?) or go to the library. To contact someone by written word you’d have to deliver your letter to the mailbox. But now for all these simple tasks you don’t have to leave your computer. It’s a one-stop-shop.
“There is no Wi-Fi in the forest, but I promise you will find a better connection.” ~ Unknown
The advancements of technology are not going to stop. Our task is to find ways to stay grounded and connected to the earth and others within the maze of technological influences and temptations. Leaving our cell phones at home once in a while, making an effort to phone or meet in person (versus emailing or texting), playing a board game versus watching a movie, and creating stronger boundaries with how much time we are on our computers (mine stays off on weekends) are simple things we can limit technology and build connection.
As adults we need to model this for our children. We must lead the way in not only promoting active and engaging play, but in maintaining a healthy relationship with technology.
7. Urbanization & Our Changing Community:
In 1790 only 5% of US residents lived in urban centers. By 2050 experts predict that number will rise to 75%. Sprawling urban centers mean further distances to travel, which requires more means of transport. More cars, more buses, and more commuters, all congest the roads we used to play on. Traffic is filling the streets, our pathways to play, and parents are concerned about their safety.
There is also less green space, less room to roam in urban centers. Generations past would not have to travel as far to find an open field or forest, but today it’s not as accessible, especially if your family cannot afford the transportation to take you there. Many of my friends do not own a car, and it is the main reason why they do not go into nature as much as others, like myself, who do own a car.
And with urbanization comes more crime. With streets being less safe than they used to be, parents, as stated earlier, are more inclined to keep children at home. They are also more inclined to place children in organized activities. Recreation centers, for instance, are becoming an extension of our neighborhood. The problem of course is that structured play does not compensate for the learning and development children gain from the unstructured free play experienced in the safety of our neighborhoods.
What perpetuates this trend towards structured play further is our lack of community cohesion. We do not know our neighbors in the same way we did 30 years ago. As a result, we have more confidence placing our children in recreation centers than in letting them roam the neighborhood.
I remember knowing my direct neighbors growing up. I’d see my dad having a beer with them, or borrowing tools. My mom would take the neighbor’s dog for a walk and I would babysit their son. I had a relationship with not only my neighbors, but also felt a kinship with the entire neighborhood consisting of three blocks. We had neighborhood block parties and barbecues and I felt free to roam my yard and the many yards of my community. My playground was vast, full of possibilities, and had many children to play with. It wasn’t as necessary to outsource play to organized systems; the neighborhood was safe and inviting.
It has been said that it takes a village to raise a child. But we need to raise the village first. In my community of Kitsilano where I live we have a group of friends that support one another in times of need. For instance when a friend recently tore her achilles tendon a number of us took the time to stop by, bring gifts, prepare meals for her and her family, and take her out for the day. This created less stress for her husband who was now running the house, which includes two children and his business. And it brought more joy to my injured friend and her family.
We are not meant to do it alone. Our communities are meant to be extension of our family offering a safe place for our children to play. If you haven’t yet, take the time to get to know your neighbor. Invite them over for a drink and begin the process of expanding your playground.
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Despite our fears, the external pressures of life, the crime in our cities and the influences of technology, play ultimately resides within and cannot be lost. It is with us at all times making every moment full of playful potential.
Yet it takes courage to be playful in our world. We are so accustomed to being stressed and in control that to be playful can feel quite vulnerable. You might stand out a bit, challenge the status quo, ruffle a few feathers and get a few glances from passers-bye. All of this serves to wake up humanity, which is what we do when we allow ourselves to be fully alive.
Therefore say Yes to your playful spirit and say Yes to the gift that is You!
Our world is waiting.
“She decided to free herself, dance into the wind, create a new language. And birds fluttered around her, writing ‘yes’ in the sky.” ~ Monique Duval
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Check out Vince’s book: Let the Fire Burn ~ Nurturing the Creative Spirit of Children, A Children’s Book for Adults