I’ve decided my life has gotten way too serious lately. This may come as a surprise to anyone who knows me as I have an oddball personality coupled with a lot of extra energy and (I think) generally come across as a fun person. But I’ve realized it’s been a while since I’ve played.
Played what? An instrument? Tennis? A card game? No, none of these things—nothing with an intended result or rules or a score—just play for the sake of play. What’s the point, you may ask? The point is that there is no point. It’s not a means to an end of accomplishing some goal.
As adults we’ve lost a lot of this and now we’re imposing that on our kids. Everything has to be measured and evaluated and has to conform to some sort of specific outcome. I’m not talking about academic standards; of course we need those to see how effective our educational methods are. You know how to do the math problem or you don’t; if you don’t then you need to learn. But outside of school they need to play.
Play is not organized sports, dance lessons, or chess club. Those things are all good as they teach skills like how to work together as a team, physical coordination, and problem solving skills. The kind of play I’m talking about is taking a box, some string, glue, foil, and paperclips and using them to make a spaceship for exploring Neptune. It’s making up a game with a squished volleyball, a variety of sticks, and a cracked flowerpot. Play is hopping down the sidewalk in a random manner because you can only land on certain colors or shapes.
But how can adults teach kids how to play when we have forgotten ourselves? Actually, I’d argue that we don’t even have to teach kids how to play—it comes naturally to children; we just need to get out of their way. Of course there needs to be some grown ups around to make sure nothing dangerous happens but otherwise hands off.
I sometimes volunteer at WonderLab, which is a science museum in Bloomington. This is a delightful haven for children of all ages—they have a serpent named William Snakespeare, and a newt named Cleese (for all you Monty Python fans). And there is an entire room dedicated to bubbles. Pause for a moment and let the awesomeness of that concept sink into your soul.
This place is all about letting kids explore. Adults are there to monitor that everyone is safe and maybe give general guidance about how an exhibit works but not to say “This is how to do it” because we know that’s a big killer to open-ended exploration.
Besides, how do we know what a kid wants to get out of it? Maybe you know the principles of engineering, that you need a solid base of blocks in order to build the next layer to make a log cabin. But maybe that’s not what she’s trying to do. Perhaps she wants to test the limits of gravity and see how high she can build it before it falls over. That’s probably more fun than a house of blocks that sits there and does nothing. Believe me, she has plenty of years before her to figure out why things won’t work. Leave her alone for now. Go have a pumpkin spice latte and come back in an hour—we’re busy playing.
I imagine what really needs to happen is for adults to learn from children how to play. (A hint for all you grown ups out there—play isn’t watching TV or surfing the Internet. That’s wasting time and being boring.)
I’ve noticed adults always want to ask what you do for work; nobody asks what you do for fun. Wouldn’t that be a more interesting answer and give more of an idea of what the other person is like? I wonder if they don’t ask this of others because they’re afraid of being asked this themselves and not having anything to say in response.
I should clarify that I’m not encouraging irresponsibility; obviously you need to fulfill your obligations since you are an adult. If anything this bolsters my argument that kids need to play as there will be plenty of time in the future for doing laundry, mowing the lawn, and filing tax returns. But just because you have these things on your to do list doesn’t mean you can’t make time for some good old-fashioned goofing around.
A good way to start is by playing with your own children, or someone else’s. You can also recruit some fun-loving acquaintances and throw a theme party. It doesn’t have to involve elaborate historical costumes—I remember a friend once told me about a plaid party she went to. Someone took the trouble to make a plaid lasagna—they used a combination of regular and spinach noodles to weave the top of the dish, with the red sauce showing through from underneath to complete the pattern.
And just the other day I read about a group of bored coworkers who recreated famous works of art using only items found in their office. (I wonder where that workplace is located, and whether or not they are hiring.)
The point is to use your imagination and do something different than what you’re already doing. Pretend you hear the voice of your mother giving that time-honored command: Go outside and play!