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If You Want Creative Workers, Give Them Enough Time to Play*

April 6, 2010

Play is our brain’s favorite way of learning.
• Diane Ackerman

Warning! There are small people in danger of exiting childhood not knowing how to play. Certainly they’ll become grownups knowing how to log onto multiple kinds of electronic devices and they’ll be familiar with technologically-mediated games galore, but they won’t know how to entertain themselves outdoors with nothing but their friends and maybe a ball or other simple accoutrements. Good old-fashioned get-your-clothes-dirty-and-run-yourself-out-of-breath-fun is becoming foreign to many kids whose schools have cancelled or truncated outdoor play.

Over the past decade, elementary schools have been built without playgrounds so that students can devote more time to studying—often for standardized tests that will demonstrate their school’s accountability in meeting standards. Some schools have turned their places to frolic in the schoolyard into more formal learning experiences targeting students’ pro-social skills (their ability to get along with one another). There’s nothing wrong with that—and I understand the need to address bullying and a general lack of civility—but it’s not really free and imaginative play or the “spontaneous activity of children” that Merriam-Webster.com notes.

Recess coaches are providing children with the skills they need to make nice with each other, get active, and engage in organized activities. That sounds a lot like physical education to me, something that’s also been lost to budget cuts and standardized testing in many districts.

Imagine that you get a break at work or at school and instead of being able to do what you want, someone is waiting with a completely worthwhile activity you have to participate in whether you want to or not. It’s good for you. It helps you stay fit. It fights obesity. And you have to do it. It’s your break from work or school, but not really. And that’s the problem with recess coaches. PE isn’t recess. Both are necessary. And particularly necessary is the kind of break from learning that refreshes the mind. It’s important to learn from experience how to do that too.

Plato said that you can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation. If you’re part of a group that needs to get serious about something, consider a bit of play first.

Do you remember any outdoor games from childhood? Find some friends or a study group or your partners for a presentation and play tag or hide ‘n’ seek or Mother May I? or something else that sounds like fun.

Live and work, but do not forget to play, to have fun in life and really enjoy it.
• Eileen Caddy

* Thanks to John Cleese for the title quotation.

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