Deep-ish Thoughts on Play

Hi bnebfiyhid
Readers! Modern-day parenting keeps replacing playing time with “teaching time,” whether that’s time devoted to Sanskrit or soccer. Here’s a rather philosophical look at why play could be the ingredient that REALLY makes kids soar. (And society, too.) Thanks to Steve DeSanto for sending it in!

Dear Free-Range Kids: Your posting of the Gever Tulley “5 Dangerous things…” video and his Tinkering School got me to wondering if you were familiar with Eric Hoffer, a philosopher and Longshoreman who became famous back in the 1960s and was interviewed on TV several times! He also taught at Berkeley. You may have read his book “The True Believer” back in college.

Anyway, in one of his other books, “The Ordeal of Change,” he has a chapter entitled:  “THE PLAYFUL MOOD.” I’m sending you this because of it’s relation to the importance of “Play” and innovations and inventions. Hoffer says:

“Men never philosophize or tinker more freely
than when they know that their speculation or tinkering leads to no
weighty results. We are more ready to try the untried when what we do is
inconsequential. Hence the remarkable fact that many inventions had their
birth as toys. In the Occident the first machines were mechanical toys,
and such crucial instruments as the telescope and microscope were first
conceived as playthings. Almost all civilizations display a singular
ingenuity in toy making…

“On the whole it seems to be true that the creative periods in history
were buoyant and even frivolous. One thinks of the lightheartedness of
Perclean Athens, the Renaissance, the Elizabethan Age, and the age of the
Enlightenment. Mr. Nehru tells us that in India ‘during every period when
her civilization bloomed, we find an intense joy in life and nature and a
pleasure in the art of living….’ ”

Hi. Lenore again, here. (I’d use different colors, but my tool bar is kaput.) Anyway, it’s cool to think about play leading to “real” results, including joy and telescopes.  So, as I suggest in my book, if you think your kids might be slightly overscheduled, consider choosing one activity they don’t love and letting ’em drop it.

Be prepared for lightheartedness all around.

10 Responses to Deep-ish Thoughts on Play

  1. Steve DeSanto November 5, 2009 at 3:04 pm #

    Thanks, Lenore, for posting the Eric Hoffer material. Any parent with a tendency to be too concerned about
    his/her child’s education may want to look at a short
    bio of Hoffer’s unusual and surprising life at this website:

    Eric had no formal schooling, yet eventually taught at the University of Berkeley after writing books that made
    him world famous and an icon of his time. So what prepared him for his meteoric rise to prominence? He was a migrant worker following the crops in California. He became a longshoreman. And he was a voracious reader.

  2. Melissa November 5, 2009 at 8:52 pm #

    I love nothing more than letting my four year old “build some twacks” as he puts it. They’re the wooden Thomas Tank Engine tracks and he has a ton of them. He designs all sorts of elaborate set-ups then proudly describes them to us in detail. Once he’s made one set-up, he rips it down and starts over. He will do this for hours on end, not even wanting to eat or go potty.

    His father and grandfather were the same way as children…always building and designing with whatever was available; tinker toys, legos, blocks. They’ve both gone on to be very successful engineers. In fact, my father-in-law has spent his career working in high-level physics labs in the U.S. and abroad designing one of a kind instumentation.

    And all my friends wonder why I’m not obsessed with sticking my kid in preschool so he can get “real education” with worksheets and flash cards and such! They don’t seem to understand the value of play. I know my son is learning more at this age when he “builds some twacks” than he could learn being stuck at a table doing worksheets. And I’m happy to encourage him in his gift. Play is the work of children, for sure!

  3. Amanda November 5, 2009 at 11:05 pm #

    This is exactly what I’m reading about right now in the book “NurtureShock” by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. This book is blowing my mind! It uses real, data-based evidence to back up what it says about parenting and its conclusions are at times surprising. It talks about the value of play specifically in Chapter 8: Can Self-Control Be Taught? Lenore: you would love this book!!

  4. Marion November 5, 2009 at 11:14 pm #

    Free play is much more creative than the scheduled programs can possibly allow. My younger son will spend hours scripting and creating his own animated movies, playing with sound effects and special effects. When he was younger, he spent hours building elaborate train tracks, just like the previous poster’s son. That kind of concentration and exploration can’t be had in a one-hour class.

    My son can’t stop creating. He writes his own music, draws constantly, designs costumes, builds sets…. If I had him as scheduled as most of my friends children, he wouldn’t have time to truly explore his creative side.

  5. Tracey R November 5, 2009 at 11:28 pm #

    Yup, free play is an amazing thing. I like the Sudbury Valley School set up, although I live nowhere near it or any similar school. I try to do what I can at home to that end: provide all kinds of things to play with and explore; arts/crafts/building materials/ books/programs/games, and let the kids go. It’s amazing how much self-motivated kids who are doing what they are doing for the sheer joy of it can accomplish. I’m really happy my oldest loves languages: I don’t think there is a big enough carrot or stick I could wield to make him tackle German, Latin, and Italian on his own!

  6. Mae Mae November 6, 2009 at 1:11 am #

    Marion, your son sounds a lot like mine. I bought Joe this thing where he can record his stories and there is a place to put his illustrations in it so it looks and acts like an audio book. He spends hours with it. I found it at Wal-Mart and it was his Christmas present last year.

    Thank you to Lenore and Steve for another source and a book to read.

  7. Stephanie November 6, 2009 at 12:20 pm #

    I also love to give my kids tons of free play time. They’re rarely in more than one activity at a time, and lots of the time not in any at all.

    My daughter has been described by her second grade teacher as “uniquely” imaginative. By the tone of the teacher’s voice, I don’t think it was quite a complement. But I’m proud of how imaginative she is! I know it sometimes makes her a little more difficult to manage in class, but I hope for it to be an advantage when she’s an adult.

  8. joshua rothhaas November 7, 2009 at 2:02 am #

    Might I recomend the book PLAY

    or a TED talk on play by the author

    He suggest play is essential for survival.

  9. Bethany November 7, 2009 at 10:58 am #

    Psychology Today’s ‘Freedom to Learn’ blog written by Peter Gray has many posts about the value of free play.

  10. Paul November 13, 2009 at 10:13 am #

    An interesting quirk of most scientists, if you meet them, is that they’re really just playing. They are people who didn’t stop playing when they grew up, and because of that they had to find more involved things to play with. Some of history’s greatest minds were doing little more than play.