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.