A Really Common Belief that's Hurting You and Your Kids

I’m going to go a tiny bit “professor” on you today.  I hope you’ll forgive me!  I’ll try to make sure that the learning is fun – because making work playful is really kind of the point of this “lesson.”

Without getting too philosophical or delving too deeply into my historical research on the American Play Movement—which is what brought play into schools and simultaneously defined it as less important than the “real work” of academics— I want to encourage you to consider that the very common belief “play is the opposite of work” might be very, very bad for kids, and adults too, for that matter.

Here’s what got me thinking about this today:  A student teacher told me yesterday that she was pleased with herself because she had “tricked” her students into “learning and doing work” by playing lots of games that “had good content.” 

“And they thought we were just playing!” she exclaimed.

My response was this: “They were playing.  Our culture has tricked you into believing that play and work are mutually exclusive.” 

My problem isn’t with this student teacher (who is an amazing play advocate herself,) but with the idea that when someone is “just playing” they are “not working,” and the connected implication that work is way more IMPORTANT than play. 

I’m convinced that these two beliefs—1) that play is not work and, 2) that work is more important than play—are doing a lot of damage to kids and to the adults to care for them.  Namely – you. 

There’s plenty of research (and more coming all the time) to show that play is very often the best way to learn, the best method for increasing productivity, creativity and problem-solving and a very effective stress-reliever for kids and adults alike (which is hugely important factor in overall health and happiness.) But still we talk and act as if play is not important, not essential.

Because I know you care about kids AND you also care about finding ways to love life yourself, I want to invite you to join me in an effort to change how we talk about work and play. 

Why change our words first?  Shouldn’t we go build a playground or something? 

Maybe. But words are a great place to start, because how we talk about things reveals and influences what we believe, and what we believe works its way out in our actions, often unconsciously. 

In schools, for example, one horrible result of the “playing isn’t work and play isn’t important” idea is the common practice of keeping children inside for recess as a punishment for not doing their “work,” or for not doing it properly (i.e. behaving poorly). 

This practice continues despite research that shows that physical play time outdoors helps children to focus better, relieves stress, improves behavior, and therefore benefits learning.  The recess-must-be-earned practice makes teaching harder for teachers and learning harder for kids, but it’s EVERYWHERE.

In the lives of my clients (and myself) I’ve seen the belief that “playing isn’t work and play isn’t important (especially for grown-ups)” result in poor health, lost tempers, depression, and a general way of living life that is small, flat, not quite all it could be. 

Many of my clients don’t know how to play anymore. They’ve spent so much time being good workers and taking care of other people that some of them don’t even remember what it is that they enjoy doing. 

So, let’s play around with these beliefs, shall we?  Maybe we can find something more useful.

Let’s just pretend:

1) that often play and work are the exact same thing, and

2) that play and work are both important.

What might then happen in our schools and our lives?

Well, in schools when a child begins misbehaving or not doing his/her work, teachers would be likely to increase the playfulness of the learning activities offered and the time for physical play outdoors. This would support the student’s ability to engage with the kind of focused attention that leads to greater learning gains. Which would likely lead to better test scores too, along with happier teachers, kids, parents and administrators.

What about in our lives?  Well, in my life, and the lives of my clients, I’ve SEEN what happens when play starts to become a priority.  We get happier; we get healthier; we become better parents, better leaders, more creative problem-solvers.  We start to change the world from the inside out and have fun doing it!  It’s nothing short of miraculous.

So, the next time you are tempted to say to your student or your child (or yourself,) “Why are you playing?  You have work to do!”  Stop yourself.  Experiment with saying something like, “You’re playing! Good for you!  That’s soooo important!  I’m so glad you chose to play first.  We also have x to get done, let’s start it in 20 minutes, good?”

The next time your child or your student is working really hard and getting visibly more stressed, grumpy, and frustrated (finals week anyone?) think “Wow, they need some play energy here!”  Then ask yourself the question, “How can I help him/her make this work more playful?” Then kidnap them for an unplanned play break: a 5-minute dance party, a trip to dairy queen in her pajamas, an extra recess, a game of HORSE—in the dark, 10 minutes of NBA2K on the xbox.

For those of you who think that these kinds of changes are WAY too hard, and maybe even downright wrong in some way, please know that I write this as a recovering “play is not work and not important” believer (even if my belief was mostly unconscious,) so I know that prioritizing play isn't exactly easy. 

How often when I’m up against a deadline do I give up the tiny ten minutes of yoga I’d planned rather than letting go of ten extra minutes of work on bills or business building?  

Every. Day.  This.  Week.  True confession. 

I'm also not saying that work will always feel like play or that play can't ever be a distraction from some other activity that needs to be done.  But I am saying that we don't need to assume that if an activity feels or looks like play than it can't possibly also be work.  

And I'll go farther to say that for you, as well as for the children you care for, the more playful work can be, the more productive it's likely to be.  

So go ahead and play! 

We can do this.  And it’s worth it.  We can change how we think about play and work.  We can find new ways to work playfully and play regularly. 

And it just might help us change the world.  What do you say?  Try it with me?

Here's to Thriving!