The joy of play
Why releasing our inhibition, as both children and adults, to find time for unstructured leisure and joyful play can change our lives. Plus, an invite to discuss free speech & a giveaway!
In this issue of CR, we’ll explore:
The joy of play: The power of play to change our lives for the better
An invitation: Free Speech on Trial
A giveaway: David French’s Divided We Fall
The joy and power of play
I love reading something that puts words to an idea that I’ve long felt to be true, but have perhaps forgotten. I had that feeling when I read this article called The Play Deficit.
This article made a persuasive argument for unstructured playtime for children. Children's lives have become so adult-directed and micro-managed. But kids need play, as it helps them develop creativity, imagination, and the social and emotional skills—such as how to overcome differences of opinion and negotiate other’s interests alongside our own—that are essential for forming friendships, and for the life well-lived, and for life in society with others.
As soon as I finished reading this article, I dropped to the floor and started playing with my son and daughter.
As parents, it’s easy to feel like we’re not doing enough to foster and cultivate our children’s lives, curiosity, and growth. I struggle with this feeling constantly. I should be teaching my children a second language now. I should have them in art and piano class. We should do more trips to the art museum and park.
There’s no such thing as too many enrichment activities, my subconscious seems to say.
Yet I remember once, when my son was maybe one year old, watching him sing and talk to himself while engrossed in a task, and having a realization that brought me great relief: I actually don’t have to do that much in order to nurture his curiosity.
I mostly just need to stay out of the way—and not do anything to actively inhibit his natural wonder about the world around him.
I discovered first hand an observation from the article, “You can’t teach creativity; all you can do is let it blossom, and it blossoms in play.”
While I was reading this article on the importance of play, I started to wonder: How and when do we lose that carefree joy of play as adults?
Also, is it possible to recover it?
Curiosity and play are innate. We’re all born with a desire to grow and learn and better understand the word around us, and play is how we do that from an early age. But the threats to curiosity are ever-present, even in the young.
Curiosity, creativity, and imagination require boredom.
But boredom isn’t comfortable.
Just as innate as the drive to play is the drive to escape the discomfort of idle time.
Sometimes, my son will wake up in the morning and say, “I watch a show, mom?”
Absolutely not, I’ll respond. There’s no way I’ll allow us to begin the day with television.
Television is something we use sparingly in our home. It is an incredibly effective tool to placate my son if I have a quick call I need to make or task to complete.
But now that we have introduced the siren song of Paw Patrol, there is no going back. It is his activity of choice. It’s easy and mindless entertainment. It would be all that he would do, if we let him. (Sometimes, I’ll justify to myself allowing him to watch television by putting on Paw Patrol episodes in French. At least he’s gaining exposure to a second language, I’ll muse.)
Given the option between television and building a tower, making cookies, making a house, or “fixing something”—a few of his favorite imaginative activities—he would be content watching his “shows” all day.
The same is true for us as adults now. We’re surrounded by no end of opportunities for distraction. Distraction is like gravity. We have to find time for, and prioritize, stillness and even boredom, because it’s when we push past the discomfort of boredom that we can create, imagine, and play.
Success culture as anti-play
I suspect that another culprit to blame for our loss of play in our lives is our culture of ambition and success. In this mindset, our worth is defined by what we earn and achieve—a disposition that is antithetical to play because it’s ends-oriented.
We want an ROI (return on investment) for everything we do, and if we can’t see an obvious and immediate and tangible benefit to an endeavor, it isn’t a worthy use of our time.
Our modern success culture doesn’t promote the idea of doing things for their own sake, beginning a task with no idea of where it will lead, or simply letting go, being, and enjoying uninhibited play. It’s difficult to play when we’re worried we might fail, or fearful that we’re wasting our time with a task that isn’t taking us closer to a particular goal.
In my own life, I often find it difficult to strike a balance between the adult obligations of work, and the childlike joys of play. I find myself wanting to have seasons of work followed by seasons of play.
Sometimes I long to have months to withdraw from the obligations of the world and parenthood to just focus on churning out my projects. I know how productive I could be if I did have the endless freedom to pursue my creative work!
But if I did so, not only would I neglect the Civic Renaissance community that I care for so much, but I’d miss out on precious time and milestones with my children. My relationships with my husband, friends, and community that also sustain me would also falter.
True health and harmony of the mind, body and soul requires us to strike a balance between work and play—the latter being the things we do for their own sake, not for any particular outcome—consistently and daily.
Many people, sadly, work at jobs they don’t enjoy, counting down the days until retirement when they can then live their lives and play.
But the fully embodied life requires a measure of play. It means discovering balance and meeting all of our needs consistently—the need to work, which is good, and the need to play, which is also necessary.
I love the rewarding feeling of hammering out tasks on my to do list. But I often forget—and am so thankful to my children for reminding me of—the need to take a breath, take a break, and to enjoy the moment wherever I am fully. That presence requires cultivation and daily practice.
This is what is required for the multidimensional personal and social human flourishing to which we all aspire.
Do yourself a favor and read this lovely essay on play to help you lighten and leaven your life with the joys to be found in the life of play.
I explore the need to find soul-nourishing activities in the final chapter of my book, The Soul of Civility. Believe it or not, finding such activities is an important step toward healing society and ourselves. You can find out why by pre ordering the book now so that you ensure you get a copy!
What activities nourish your soul and give you joy?
What are your barriers to the joy of play?
How can you give yourself permission to play and experience joy, and recover elements of play in your life starting now?
I’d love to hear your answers to these questions. Write to me at email@example.com with your thoughts.
Here are some lines from the article I particularly loved, and which you might, too:
“The rise in mental disorders among children is largely the result of the decline in children’s freedom. If we love our children and want them to thrive, we must allow them more time and opportunity to play, not less. Yet policymakers and powerful philanthropists are continuing to push us in the opposite direction — toward more schooling, more testing, more adult direction of children, and less opportunity for free play.”
“Over the same decades that children’s play has been declining, childhood mental disorders have been increasing… Analyses of the results reveal a continuous, essentially linear, increase in anxiety and depression in young people over the decades, such that the rates of what today would be diagnosed as generalised anxiety disorder and major depression are five to eight times what they were in the 1950s. Over the same period, the suicide rate for young people aged 15 to 24 has more than doubled, and that for children under age 15 has quadrupled.”
“The decline in opportunity to play has also been accompanied by a decline in empathy and a rise in narcissism… exactly what we would expect to see in children who have little opportunity to play socially. Children can’t learn these social skills and values in school, because school is an authoritarian, not a democratic setting. School fosters competition, not co-operation; and children there are not free to quit when others fail to respect their needs and wishes.”
“For more than two decades now, education leaders in the US, the UK and Australia have been urging us to emulate Asian schools — especially those of Japan, China, and South Korea. Children there spend more time at their studies than US children, and they score higher on standardised international tests. What US Education Secretary Duncan apparently doesn’t realise, or acknowledge, is that educational leaders in those countries are now increasingly judging their educational system to be a failure. While their schools have been great at getting students to score well on tests, they have been terrible at producing graduates who are creative or have a real zest for learning.”
“The reason why play is such a powerful way to impart social skills is that it is voluntary. Players are always free to quit, and if they are unhappy they will quit. Every player knows that, and so the goal, for every player who wants to keep the game going, is to satisfy his or her own needs and desires while also satisfying those of the other players, so they don’t quit. Social play involves lots of negotiation and compromise… To have fun in social play you have to be assertive but not domineering; that’s true for all of social life.”
“In school, and in other settings where adults are in charge, they make decisions for children and solve children’s problems. In play, children make their own decisions and solve their own problems. In adult-directed settings, children are weak and vulnerable. In play, they are strong and powerful. The play world is the child’s practice world for being an adult. We think of play as childish, but to the child, play is the experience of being like an adult: being self-controlled and responsible. To the degree that we take away play, we deprive children of the ability to practise adulthood, and we create people who will go through life with a sense of dependence and victimisation, a sense that there is some authority out there who is supposed to tell them what to do and solve their problems. That is not a healthy way to live.”
Free speech on trial
Join us Jan 25th at 12 ET for a conversation with Jacob Mchangama about the themes of his new book, Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media.
What is free speech, and why does it matter to a free society? Does it matter at all?
CR subscribers are invited to an exclusive 30 min private dialogue with Jacob before this event. Subscribe now to enjoy this private dialogue as well as the other perks of being a subscriber by clicking the link below!
Join us to discuss these questions and many more by registering at the link below!
A giveaway: Divided We Fall
You know that the purpose of Civic Renaissance is to heal our public discourse through reviving the wisdom of the past, as well as beauty, goodness and truth. In Divided We Fall, you’ll discover what one public thinker, David French, considered to be the cause of our current crisis of division, and how we can emerge from it.
David is a conservative and Christian thinker whom I greatly admire. If you’re interested in learning from one of the most gracious and rigorous public intellectuals of our day, you’ll enjoy reading this book.
Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org to enter!