Monday, May 18, 2009


I recently heard a mom remark, “I don’t know what I’m going to do with my kids this summer.  They don’t know how to just play.”  Sound familiar? 

I’m making a sweeping generalization here: Today’s suburban kids live by set schedules and organized, adult-regulated activities.  We moms shuttle them off to piano lessons, tutoring, baseball practice, art class.  We think we’re doing what’s best for our kids.  We want them to have opportunities, so we start building our kids’ “resumes” in elementary school. 

Yes, I would agree that kids learn discipline, the value of teamwork, and socially appropriate behavior from playing soccer or saxophone.  But there’s a seriousness and rigidity to all of this structure, and we’re missing something big. . .


In his outstanding book, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagintion, and Invigorates the Soul, Stuart Brown, M.D., discusses play as a state of mind.  He defines it as “an absorbing, apparently purposeless activity that provides enjoyment and a suspension of self-consciousness and sense of time.” 

Notice how Brown says that play is “apparently purposeless.”  In his eyes, it is perhaps the most important aspect of brain growth.  Brown believes that “play lies at the core of creativity and innovation.”

But we think that kids who fit the mold, who play “the game” with an exceptional GPA and impressive resume (that includes a service trip to Africa, of course), will be rewarded in life. 

How many unhappy college graduates do you know? 

In recent years, Brown has presented a seminar on play to Stanford sophomores, who he believes are “suffering from low-grade play deprivation, and are so used to their hectic, pressured, high-performance lives (despite still being kids) that they don’t realize what they have missed in the pursuit of academic excellence and success.” 

I was that kid.  Growing up, I was so tightly wound that I lost sight of play.   For me, good grades got old, and there was a huge price to pay for not cutting loose.  At the end of the day, who cares about academic accolades and big fat promotions if there is no play. 

So, how can we encourage our children to play? 

Brown suggests exposing our children to various opportunities at a young age and taking note of their early desires and inclinations, “the natural choices that your child’s early play demonstrates.”  Then, encourage those early patterns that result from natural desires to build, sing, create, dance, etc.

So, the next time your child plays with the box instead of the $100 award-winning toy inside of it, swallow your pride and give yourself permission to smile.  She is building a world for herself and mastering the most important subject, Life 101.  


Stacie said...

I am sooo with you on this one! Our youngest just turned 2 and his favorite toys were the the simplest--a peg board and a wooden stacking toy. Let's get back to the basics as parents and let our kids teach us how to play.

And thanks for the book recommendation--I look forward to checking it out.

Melissa Taylor said...

I totally agree. Have you read the book Einstein Never Used Flash Cards for their research on play based preschools vs. academic preschools? It was so helpful to reinforce my beliefs in play. I loved the author's characterization of our culture's "cult of achievement" with our own kids. Scary, isn't it!

I love your thoughtful blog!

turnitupmom said...

Melissa, your book recommendation is awesome! I am totally getting it! My husband teaches high school math and is going to use that line, "Einstein Never Used Flash Cards."

Mark Brady said...

All the brain research I've studied confirms Brown's claims. One central problem, Mary Jo, is that if the parents aren't practiced at playing, i.e. the play circuits on the right sides of their brains aren't wired up well, play just isn't fun! For parents OR children. These folks mostly WORK at play. It's like the Catch 22 that Wavy Gravy rants about ("If you don't have a sense of humor, life's just not funny."

Lori Landau said...

I felt compelled to comment: we ALL need to be discussing this subject more, and spreading the word. We are over busy, and so are our kids. We all need to get back to basics, to tuning inside, rather than looking outside for happiness, and allowing kids to be kids rather than mini adults.

Tina said...

absolutely! i've held this belief for a very long time...and i've always thumbed my nose at academic preschools when i was teaching preschool and went for the play/creativity based programs...and then once i had kids, we didn't do preschool at all! since i knew i'd be homeschooling, and i stay home with them, there's been no reason for me to even look into preschool! especially since playgroups and playdates were a part of our lives since my oldest was born!

i'm of the mindset, even now that my oldest is 8 and a half, that play is still THE most important thing for her to be experiencing in her life! in fact, i came up with what i thought was a really interesting theory:
the "what if" is what if we live stressful lives because that's how we learned to live our lives starting in childhood?

its a thought. :)

i've often dreamed of having "Play Days" here locally, which i read about somewhere on the internet...kind of like the "new games" of the 70s...remember those? cooperative games, LOTS of fun!! ALL ages!

yes, play is super important, i'm with ya there! i will encourage my kids to continue playing and we'll miss out on errands and such if they are involved in some wonderful play project because its that important, i think.

Stacy (mama-om) said...

I spend a lot of time watching my kids play (and NOT directing it). Kids say a lot in their play -- it is how they work out what's on their mind, and I am so grateful for the chance to see my sons' minds at work.

Have you heard of the book Playful Parenting by Lawrence Cohen? He encourages parents to "play" with their kids but emphasizes the difference between directing or controlling the play and taking a listening/playful stance and really entering your child's world. (He is a child therapist.)

Thanks for this post on a important topic, and thanks for stopping by my blog and commenting!