Play for its Own Sake

My wife and I greatly admire the parenting of some friends of ours who live in Palo Alto, land of compulsive overachievment. After school, the other parents in their neighborhood chaffeur their kids to Hebrew lessons, dance classes, debate societies, baseball coaching (not Little League mind you, but private instructors in hitting, fielding etc.) and a million other activities that will allegedly “get them into Harvard someday.” Our friends in contrast do something radical with their children once the school day has ended: They let them play. Sometimes their kids run around aimlessly, sometimes they invent games, sometimes they read books, sometimes they make big constructions from rocks and blocks and then knock them over, sometimes they stare at the sky.

Our friends don’t feel defensive about their decision: Like my wife and me, they love to see their children playing and have no worries about dire consequences. Other such parents are apparently not so secure, and have formed a “play movement” to defend children’s playtime, by emphasizing that in fact play is great preparation for adult life. It stimulates the mind, encourages creativity and hones social skills. In short, “Ha ha who laughs last? The play-promoting parent-cum-activists whose kids will get the slots at Harvard that your little gradgrinds think are going to them!”

In the Atlantic this month, Christina Schwarz nails how both the achievement-obsessed and the “play movement” are buying into the same b.s. Both assume that play is not a good in itself, but is only of value if it promotes adult achievement. Indeed, childhood itself seems to have no inherent worth either, except to the extent it gets you into Harvard someday, which some people consider the ultimate sign that a child has been launched as a successful adult.

When I lived in Champaign, Illinois, there was a little area of town called Mahomet, where a lot of strivers lived. I knew a retired music teacher there who still took on private pupils (She didn’t need the money, she just loved kids and music). She said that some of her young students simply cried at the piano, because they felt such constant pressure to be doing something to please their parents or get into Harvard or both all the time. When the anxious looking parents would pick their kids up, she would lie to them: “He’s another Mozart, a genius”, “She plays better than my college pupils” etc. And her students adored her, because she was the only person in their lives who accepted that no one can perform for others or “be productive” all the time, and sometimes kids just want to have fun and trust that adults will accept them the way they are.