Monday, November 19, 2007

Play's the Thing

My favorite summer sound is the sound of children playing outside. You can tell by the sound of their voices that they are having fun. I'm lucky that I live in a neighbourhood where kids go outside to play.

When children play they lose themselves in what they are doing. They are not playing for external goals as most of us are at work. Unlike work, play is self-motivated. That's why it's fun and work often isn't.

I've been reading two books which both argue that play is crucial for healthy psychological growth. In, The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness, Ed Hallowell argues that the ability to play is a key indicator of adult happiness. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, (pronounced: Mehigh Chicksentmehigh), In his book, Flow, argues that the ability to control the flow of experience originates from childhood play.

Nowadays we have many ways to enjoy ourselves so why focus on play? Almost everybody enjoys watching TV and many people like computer games and video games. It's certainly fun and you can lose yourself in these pursuits, just as children can in play. But, children who watch a lot of TV are missing out on the challenge and interactions that ocurr frequently in play. Video and computer games are more interactive than TV, and they can be challenging, but children are missing the use of their imagination when they spend too much time on the computer. They are also depriving themselves of the physicality of play: the experience of our own bodies in motion and the richness of face to face encounters - seeing another's facial expressions and body language; hearing the tone of their voice and the timing of their conversation, and much more.

When children go out and play they create a world with its own rules, straight out of their memories and imaginations. The rules may seem anarchical or nonsensical to adults but they ensure just the right amount of challenge - not so challenging that one is continually frustrated and not so easy as to be boring.

Have you ever seen children get a big expensive toy at Christmas time and end up having more fun playing with the box than with the toy itself. They make, castles, and forts, and towns out of these boxes. Dr Hallowell says: The skill of play, of being able to make creative use of time, no matter what you are doing, is the skill that lies behind all discoveries, all advances, and all creative activity.

Adults have lots of responsibilities, which means often having to do stuff that they don't want to do. We can let children play and have fun as much as possible before they need to take on the pressures of adult life. Sometimes kids are given too much structured time with sports and lessons and not enough unstructured time where they can make up their own activities and play. Sports and music are supposed to be about playing but often they are too goal directed and cease to be fun. According to Dr Hallowell, seventy percent of children stop playing sports by the time they turn fifteen.

The purpose of youth sports should be having fun. If you make victory or discipline the first goal you can kill the fun... The problem arises when people are so fixated on what they want to achieve that they cease to derive pleasure from the present.

Playing gives us access to the infinite resources of our imagination. What we most enjoy when we play gives us an idea of the kind of person we can become. According to Hallowell, play teaches skills of problem solving and cooperation. It teaches the ability to tolerate frustration and the "all important ability to fail"

But play does a lot more: according to Csikszentmihalyi, people who can enjoy themselves in a variety of situations have the ability to screen out stimulation and to focus only on what they decide is relevant for the moment, just as we are able to lose ourselves in play by focussing on the object of play and ignoring everything else. Studies of survivors of extreme conditions show that what all these survivors had in common was the ability to transform bad situations into subjectively controllable situations. They were able to take a very bleak objective condition and focus on the minute details, some of which led to the discovery of hidden opportunities.

According to Dr Hallowell, it is crucial for happiness that you feel in control over yourself and your environment. But what people enjoy during play is not so much the sense of being in control, but the sense of exercising control in difficult situations. According to Csikszentmihlayi, it's not enough to be happy to have an excellent life, the point is to be happy while doing things that stretch our skills, that help us grow and fufil our potential. When we do this we feel good about ourselves because we know that we have done something we couldn't do before. We get an inner feeling of accomplishment which raises our self-esteem. This experience is a powerful motivator. And that's why play is so important.

In play children naturally match skill to level of challenge. The experience of play is enjoyable because we are so easily able to focus our attention on the object of play and screen out anything extraneous. The problem with TV and computers is that they do this filtering out for us so we aren't actually excercising any control over our experience while we are engaged. When we stop watching the TV we don't have the memory of ourselves doing anything. Play and our memory of playing connect us to our imagination - the most important resource we have.


  1. I agree with much of this. We are living in an age where children are driven to school, picked up and ferried to after school activities to further their opportunities as adults, economically speaking. I read somewhere that adolescence is a modern invention. Children in the developing world and in the past model(led) their parents, contributing however possible to the economic health of the family. What I have experienced of developed world children is often (not always) a sense of entitlement, expectation and little or no work ethic. Are these issues related?

  2. The ideal would be for all children on Earth to be entitled to live their potential to the fullest extent. The illusion is that economic growth will get us there. We need to exercise our rights to the commons.