recently i have been talking to several friends that have been stressed out, overworked, lacking motivation, struggling to keep their head above water, trying to find inspiration or just generally wiped out. i can't help but wonder why as adults we get so worn out and yet children who seem to be going 24/7 never really wear down in the same fashion. i find myself constantly rechecking myself and gauging my own personal exhaustion meter and rarely do i find it near empty. something in my youth, or childhood forced me to embrace play evermore as i grew into adulthood. today i can honestly say that i find myself surrounded by young people ten to 15 years my junior and I feel just fine. when i'm in a room full of "adults" and "grown-ups" i often find them uninspiring, boring, and lacking vision. now some of you might say that i am immature, inappropriate or simply young-at-heart. i have to disagree. i make a conscious effort to maintain my youthful nature. i do my best to remember what it means to be playful. i play regularly and enjoy that time. i strive to use my imagination in ways that i hadn't before and i keep that alive by spending time with those that haven't put their dreams and imaginations away in the dusty boxes of their attics with all the other memorabilia of the youth. my playfulness and my capacity to imagine and therefore work more productively are only expanded by my younger peers and my desire to play. so to all you old geezers out there, or to those that are exhausted or lacking vision, seeking inspiration or yearning for some fresh ideas go outside and play. you'll do better on your tests, find more energy and find inspiration and a clear mind. so go find your long lost imaginary friend, your old dolls, or a plastic roy rogers six shooter and play!
I found great inspiration for this post from this article below.
The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness
PLAY: THE SOURCE OF
Play sets us free from the tyranny of compulsory boredom. Play leads
us to what Csikszentmihalyi calls flow. Play and creativity go hand in
hand to create a supremely involved state of mind to which you want
to return for the rest of your life. Play is a fundamental key to a life of
joy. Don't think that your child will automatically learn how to play
just because he or she is a child. Many children these days are not
learning how to play.
You can't overestimate the importance of play, especially the kind
of play the child makes up on his own or with a friend or group of
friends. It is the most important "work" your child can do.
You probably have a good idea of what I mean by the word play,
but since the Oxford English Dictionary devotes six full pages to this
one deceptively simple word, and since the meaning of play is crucial
to this book, I want to define what I mean by the word.
By play I mean any activity in which there is room for spontaneous
invention and/or change. You can play as you eat (and many
kids do); you can play as you drive (but you probably shouldn't); you
can even play as you pee (and many kids do!). The opposite of play is
not work; indeed, the best work is playful. The opposite of play is doing
exactly what you are told to do. Memorization by rote is the opposite
of play; on the other hand, thinking up a mnemonic device to
help you memorize a series of items can be very playful.
Don't tell me I am being a Pollyanna when I say that you can play
your whole life long. Linus Pauling, who won two Nobel Prizes (for ·
chemistry in 1954 and for peace in 1962), stated when he was an old
man, "I don't think I ever sat down and asked myself, now what am I
going to do in life? I just went ahead doing what I liked to do."
Of course, he was lucky that what he liked to do coincided with
something that was of value to others. Having a successful career
really just means that you've found a way to play that other people are
willing to pay you for. The roots of this kind of play lie squarely in
When I watch Tucker play, I see play at its best. His play is full of
spontaneous invention and change. He makes up the rules as he goes,
he varies the routine constantly, he changes the characters, and he alters
the outcome, all according to his whim. Whim and play, by the
way, go hand in hand. Trial and error accompany play, as do scrapes
and falls. Play is not entirely safe, as the game changes all the time.
But play can be quite structured and governed by rules. For example,
when you play the piano, you follow a score. The room for invention
and change comes in your interpretation of the score. Or when
you play baseball, you follow an elaborate set of rules. The room for
spontaneous invention and change comes in how you swing or how
you field a ball.
Play deserves more respect than it gets. Playing with images and
ideas is what creativity is all about, and creativity advances civilization.
Most children learn play spontaneously, unless they are prevented
from doing so by adults who insist that children do exactly what they
are told to do. If you only do exactly what you are told to do, you cannotplay.
Early childhood should be one of the best times in a person's life,
in part because early childhood is when we start to play. If there is any;
better way to strengthen a brain, or to feed the spirit, than to play, I
don't know what it is.
Each of my children had their favorite toys or games when they
were young. Fot example, Lucy loved clothes from the very beginning.
I think she would have critiqued her diapers if she'd had the words.
She liked to dress up in different outfits with her little friend Sophie
and put on plays in the basement.
I remember buying at an auction when Lucy was four a trunkful
of old, used dress-up clothes-feather boas, rhinestone-studded
blouses, top hats and a cane, high heels of different styles, scarves and
throws of many colors and sizes. It was one of the best gifts I ever gave
her. She would sit for hours with Sophie or some other friend trying
on one combination after another, one role after another. Now that
she is twelve, we still have the trunkful of clothes, although it doesn't
get much use these days. Lucy has moved on to Limited Too, the
Gap, and Abercrombie & Fitch. But she got her start in that trunk.
Her ambition when she grows up? She says she wants to be a fashion
designer. She will probably change her mind many times, but her
current ambition reflects the five steps I describe in this book. She began
with a connection to Sophie; they started to play with clothes; this
led to practice; as they became expert in the different combinations
and looks they could create, they gained a feeling of mastery over the
act of dressing up; and they found recognition from each other, from
friends, and from us grown-ups. If Lucy does become a fashion designer,
she will have found a form of play that other people are willing
to pay her to do, and the roots of that vocation will not be hard to
With Jack, it was puzzles. He was putting puzzles together before
he could walk. He simply was born with a strong spatial sense. Early
on he could put together a puzzle in a few minutes that would take me
a half hour to figure out. It was fun to watch him do it. He would sit on
the floor, surrounded by the pieces of the puzzle, and he would look at
the pieces for a little while. Then he would pick up a piece and put it
down so that it interlocked with another piece. Quickly other pieces
would follow, as the puzzle took shape. Jack would have a little smile
on his face, as he became totally engaged with what he was doing.
Playing in childhood leads to happiness in the moment, and it
leads to happiness many years later.
The reason to encourage children to play is not merely that play is
wonderful end in itself-although it is that. As a child plays, he
learns a special skill-the skill of play-and it is a skill that is more
useful than any other. The skill of play, of being able to make creative
use of time no matter where you are or what you are doing, is the skill
that lies behind all discoveries, all advances, all creative activity. If you
can play, you will always have a chance to be happy and to do something
Maybe because play is such a short word, it doesn't get the respect
it deserves. Mathematics gets more respect. So does geography. Even
brushing teeth. Or maybe play doesn't get respect because it sounds
like what you do at recess or when you're goofing off. The fact is, both
recess and goofing off deserve more respect, too.
Maybe we should make up new names for play and recess and ·
goofing off. How about if we call them "interacting spontaneously and
creatively with your environment"? Would they get more respect then?
I know how play could get more respect. If we could prove that a
child who plays gets higher SAT scores and earns more money as an
adult than the child who doesn't play, then play would get more respect.
Courses in "successful play" would spring up all over the country.
Well, we have proved that children who play get higher SAT scores
than children who don't. But as with the studies on connectedness,
most people don't know about the studies that correlate play with improved
mental functioning. As for making more money, I don't know
if that study has been done. But I can guarantee you that people are
happier as adults if they learned to play as children.
After a child puts away her teddy bears and blocks and dolls,
she will find other toys and other games. For instance, she will start to
play with words and become an author. Or she will start to play with
numbers and become a mathematician. Or she will start to play
with chemicals and become a chemist. Or she will start to play with
baseballs and become an athlete. Or she will start to play with people
and become a leader. Or she will start to play with ideas and become a
philosopher. Or she will start to play with emotions and become an
actor or an artist or a therapist or a coach or a teacher. Or she will start
to play with dress-up clothes and become a fashion designer or with
puzzles and become an architect. Whatever the field of interest, if play
leads her into it, she will love it and excel.
I don't know if there is a more surefire guarantee of a happy life
than acquiring the skill of play. It ranks right up there with receiving
unconditional love and leading a connected childhood as the most
important childhood roots of adult happiness.
Play and Flow
When you are in flow, you forget who you are, where you are, what
time it is, and where you are supposed to go next. You lose selfconsciousness
entirely, as you become one with the activity you are
doing. Maybe you are skiing, maybe you are playing the piano, maybe
you are arguing a point in a heated debate, maybe you are gazing
into a fire, lost in a daydream. Whatever the activity, it has captivated
your mind so that "you" disappear and are replaced by you-in-action,
you-skiing, or you-playing-the-piano or you-debating or you-lost-inthought.
The observing, self-conscious part of you has for the moment
This is why people become aware of their experience of flow only
in retrospect. When we are happiest, when we are in flow, we do not
realize it at the time. It is a paradox that we do not recognize happiness
as it is happening and only remember it after the intensity has
In any case, the more chances you create for yourself to experience
flow, the happier you will be. You will also be more successful if you
spend a lot of time in flow, as people are at their most effective in these
highly concentrated states.
You might wonder how flow is relevant to play. Well, play is the
childhood version of flow. When Tucker is wrapped up in some imaginary
intergalactic battle with his action figures, as I described in
Chapter 4, he is in a state of flow. He forgets where he is, he forgets
who he is, and he becomes one with his game.
I can see in Tucker's play the basic steps Csikszentmihalyi has
found to comprise flow.
First, to reach a state of flow, the challenge inherent in the activity
sho~d match the skill of the person involved. Too much challenge
and you feel frustrated and defeated. It is like playing tennis with a far
superior opponent. Too little challenge and you feel bored, like play~ .
ing tennis with someone who has never played before. Children naturally
match the challenges of their play to the skills they bring to it.
Second, you know what you are doing from moment to moment,
and you control your steps. When Tucker plays, he is in complete control,
and he is doing exactly what he tells himself to do. He can't get
lost or feel overwhelmed.
Third, you get immediate feedback on what you are doing. In a
tennis game, I see what kind of shot I made right away. In writing a
book, as I am doing now, I can see what kind of sentence I have writ- '
ten as soon as I finish the sentence, and then I can compare it to some
internal standard that gives me my feedback immediately (often to my
dismay!). Even if I miss the shot in tennis or write clumsy sentence in
this book, the immediate feedback keeps me in the state of flow, because
I get another chance right away. When Tucker plays, he instantly
sees the result of whatever he is doing, either by himself or with a
friend, and he or they can make adjustments on the spot.
When children play, they naturally drift toward kinds of play that
lead into flow. As a parent, all you need to do is keep their energy
moving that way. Sometimes you need to set up barriers, like a barrier
between your child and the television or the Nintendo, as these passive
kinds of play do not promote flow.
According to Csikszentmihalyi, in order to learn flow, children
should turn off the television and turn on their minds. "One learns to
experience flow;' he writes, "by getting involved in activities that are
more suited to provide it, namely, mental work and active leisure."
He then goes on to say, "It is 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 fulfill our potential. This is especially
true in the early years: A teenager who feels happy doing nothing is
unlikely to grow into a happy adult."
The goal of play, then, is to stretch the mind and expand your repertoire
of ways to create joy. Csikszentmihalyi's research also establishes
how crucial connectedness is for the development of play and flow. His
research shows that the people who are best at finding and maintaining
flow also spend "a significantly higher amount of time interacting with
the family-on the order of four hours a week--compared to the others.
This begins to explain why they learn to enjoy more whatever they
are doing. The family seems to act as a protective environment where
a child can experiment in relative security, without having to· be selfconscious
and worry about being defensive ?r competitive:'
This is precisely the point I have been stressing about the relationship
between connectedness and play. You create a safe environment
first; play naturally follows. The only truly dangerous learning disability
is not dyslexia or attention deficit disorder (both of which I
have myself) but fear. Fear, and its cousins shame and embarrassment,
are what hold children (and adults) back from doing their best and
from learning new skills. Fear inhibits play. Fear can prevent flow. So
as you reserve time for your children to play, be sure you preserve the
feeling of safety and connectedness along with it.
Play Need Never End
The child who plays early continues to play, and with some luck as an
adult he will find a kind of play that people are willing to pay him to
do. Look at the adults you know who are happiest in their work. Most
of them will describe their work as a kind of play-serious play, perhaps,
and challenging and exhausting play, even painful play at times,
but still, at its core, play.
'With that in mind, let me help you parents manage a difficult
transition in your children's lives. This transition is easy for children
but hard for many parents. It is when your child leaves his
toys behind. You are saying good-bye to a certain little buddy that
you will never see again, except in memory. I remember Lucy playing
with her dolls, which are now all gone. I remember Jack playing
with his LEGOs, which he is starting now to leave behind. And now,
when I look at Tucker at play in his room with his teddy bears and
toy soldiers and superheroes, I get a lump in my throat, realizing the
time is brief when he will play so unselfconsciously. These transitions
are proud moments for our children, but they can make us parents
A. A. Milne wrote a poem about this transition in Now We Are Six.
In this poem, "Forgotten;' Milne imagines how a child's toys, the
"Lords of the Nursery," might feel as they wait for the little boy who
used to play with them to come back. Where has he gone? He has
grown up, sad to say.
Lords of the Nursery
Wait in a row,
Five on the high wall,
And four on the low:
Big Kings and Little Kings,
Brown Bears and Black,
All of them waiting
Till John comes back.
Some think that John boy
Is lost in the wood,
Some say he couldn't be,
Some say he could.
Some say that John boy
Hides on the hill;
Some say he won't come back,
Some say he will. ...
Slowly and slowly
Dawns the new day ...
What's become of John boy?
No one can say.
Some think that John boy
Is lost on the hill;
Some say he won't come back,
Some say he will.
What's become of John boy?
Nothing at all,
He played with his skipping rope,
He played with his ball.
He ran after butterflies,
Blue ones and red;
He did a hundred happy thingsAnd
then went to bed.
But as sad as I feel when I realize that Tucker will soon leave
his toys behind and follow Jack and Lucy into older years, I also
take heart, because Tucker is learning how to play now in such a way
that the skill will grow from year to year rather than disappear. The
toys will change, the games will change, but the mental activity of
creative, imaginative play that Tucker learned from ages zero to six
will only grow.
Even though, as Tucker said, he cannot control his heightness because
he has to go up, up, and away, he will take with him the good
work he did with those toys. He will take with him the ability to play.
Those toys lined up against the wall should be proud. They gave
that little boy a gift more precious than any wage he'll ever earn.
And so, parents, take heart. You have done your work well if your
Lucy, Jack, or Tucker knows how to play. And I would say to the toys
in your child's room, "Good work, you magnificent, tattered, brave,
worn-out toys. Don't be sad. You built my child's imagination so
strong and big that now that child can do anything, thanks to you.
Don' 't be lonely, be proud. More children will come along. I'll take you
out to a yard sale and find some for you soon."
The connection between childish play and adult happiness is crucial.
One of the best ways to predict if an adult is happy or not is to see
if he or she can play. Adults who can play tend to be resilient and be
full of joie de vivre. Adults who cannot play may be successful in their
driven way, but they are likely to be low on happy moments.
They are also low on innovative or creative moments. In the business
world these days, everyone wants to hire people who can "think
outside the box:' If that's what they want, they ought to hire children,
or the next best thing-adults who still know how to play.
Adults who can't play are in trouble, not only in their pursuit of
happiness but in their pursuit of excellence as well. Let me give you an
example of the kind of problem they can encounter.
One of my jobs is to serve as a consultant to the chemistry department
at Harvard. For several years I met on a monthly basis with
Professor Jim Anderson when he was chairman of the department.
Sometimes we would discuss what makes for a successful graduate
student or postdoctoral fellow in chemistry.
Jim explained to me that there are two groups of students, those
who can work (or, in my terms, play) on their own and those who
cannot. Everyone who applies to the graduate program at Harvard has
top scores and a bundle of honors and prizes to back them up. But
many of these top students will not make good scientists. What separates
the ones who will become top scientists from the ones who won't
is the ability to play.
When you enroll in graduate study in chemistry, the rules change.
Suddenly you have to discover new knowledge, not just master what is
already known. Suddenly you have to design and run your own experiments,
not just follow the directions in a lab manual. Suddenly
there are no more tests to ace, just a lab bench silently awaiting a new
experiment and the world of undiscovered knowledge daring you to
find a way to penetrate its walls.
Some students jump for joy at this. "Let me at it!" they exult. At
last they have found what they've been waiting for. They have found
their field of play. It will be hard, serious, exhausting play; they will
stay up late into the night, and they will get bad results more often
than not. They will bang their heads against the walls of undiscovered
knowledge and come up empty again and again. Sometimes they will
curse their luck and worry that they will never find anything of significance.
But they will love what they are doing anyway, because they
will be following the force of their own curiosity. They will be doing
what they've always wanted to do. The true scientist is not the bespectacled
nerd of popular stereotype; he or she is more like Indiana Jones,
taking great risks, hunting down the Lost Ark. This is the scientist: an
adventurer finding a way into unexplored worlds.
Other students, those who cannot play, collapse. With no more
tests to take, with no more 1\s to get, with no one telling them what to
do, they don't know where to turn. Without instructions they are at a
loss. They don't know how to generate their own questions and hypotheses,
nor how to design their own experiments. They never become
This same distinction holds in most fields. The people who break
new ground in literature or history or technology or business often
were not the top students in school but rather were itching until they
could get out of school and mix it up with life-play, to use my
term-according to where curiosity and invention led them.
You can go back to childhood and find the same two groups in
school. Some children need to be told what to do or have a television
or a computer game lead them along. They can't make up anything on
their own. Other children can play even in an empty room. No toys.
No furniture. Nothing. But they invent imaginary figures and soon fill
the room with creative play. It is much easier to convert a child who
can't play into one who can than it is to convert an adult who can't
play into an adult who can.
Some children do not learn how to play as well as they might. It is
not because they are confined in authoritarian environments but because
they spend too much time interacting with video games, computers,
and televisions, which are restrictive in their own way. In a
remarkable article, entitled "Why Johnny Can't Play," published, of all
plac~s, in Fast Company magazine, Pamela Kruger reported on research
done by, of all people, a market-research executive.
What's the matter with kids today? Says market-research guru
Ted Klauber: Their lives are so busy, so structured, and so infused
with digital technology that they have no time for fun.
Ted Klauber is fiddling with a projector, trying to find just
the right video clip to illustrate his point. Klauber, 42, a New
York City-based senior executive at advertising giant FCB
The Childhood Roots of' Adult Happiness
Worldwide, has spent the past year researching the relationship
between kids and technology. He could talk for days
about how kids today are different from those of previous
generations and about how FCB's clients should respond to
But he knows that the most articulate voices for his ideas
belong to the kids themselves, as well as to their parents. So
Klauber turns off the lights and shows his clip. First a group
of young boys from London rattle off a seemingly endless list
of after-school activities that the week has in store for them.
Then the mother of a boy in Singapore describes the four
classes that her son takes every Saturday. "It's incredible when
you think about it;' says Klauber, senior VP and worldwide
director of Mind & Mood, a proprietary tool of FCB. "When I
was a kid, I'd roam around on my blue Schwinn for hours.
These kids have daily to-do lists. Some of them have only
twenty minutes of free time a day:'
When Klauber started this project, he had no initial
hypothesis-only a commitment to exploring an infrequently
asked question: How is digital technology (and the lifestyle
issues that go along with it) affecting young children's "sense
of fun, play, and thinking"? After conducting forty in-depth
workshops with kids (ages six to eleven) and their parents from
several countries-including Brazil, Germany, Mexico, and the
United States-Klauber arrived at answers that are both refreshing
Among his seven primary findings: The obsession among
parents with efficiency and productivity has trickled down to
even the youngest of kids. Playtime has morphed into what
Klauber calls a "digital wonderland"-a fast-moving, goaloriented
zone that affords "little time for aimless fun." Kids
today are focused on competition, on efficiency, and on results.
One consequence of this development is that their imaginations
are beginning to atrophy: Play is all about the destination,
rather than the journey.
"When parents talked to us about their childhoods;'
Klauber says, "they had a sense of wonderment. They remembered
building forts out of pillows and blankets. They remembered
making up elaborate stories. But because kids
today have so little free time, and because they're always surrounded
by media, they don't explore what's off the beaten
path. They want their fun to be quick and easy. The art of being
bored is lost." ...
There's no question that Klauber's findings are causing
some of his clients and colleagues to rethink their ideas about
kids and their needs. For instance, after listening to Klauber's
presentation, an executive at Mattei took a leave of absence to
devote more time to her children. One FCB executive was so
moved by the findings that he left work early to talk to his
wife about how they could make their kids' lives a little less
This warning has been sounded by experts from diverse backgrounds.
One of the most authoritative is the Alliance for Childhood,
an interdisciplinary group of teachers, scientists, doctors, parents, and
others concerned with children. The alliance published a monograph
entitled Fool's Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood. Another
expert on children, Dr. Jane Healy, cautioned against looking at
computers as a pedagogical cure-all in her excellent book Failure to
Connect. And Dr. Susan Villani, from Johns Hopkins, published an article
in the April2001 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of
Child and Adolescent Psychiatry reviewing all the studies that have
beerl done in the past decade on the effect on children of the various
electronic media (television, videos, DVDs, video games, Nintendo
and the like, computer games, the Internet).
The consensus of the experts is clear on two points: First, some
media is fine, but too much is bad. Second, parents should monitor
the content of all the media into which their children delve. Some Web
sites are toxic waste dumps, just as some movies and even some books
can be. Parents need to know not only how much but also what their
children are watching.
Certainly one of the most dramatic ways in which childhood has
changed is the emergence in this generation of the Internet, E-mail,
chat rooms, instant messaging, and video games, to go along with television,
which the previous generation also grew up with.
The media themselves are not destructive unless, as the Klauber
study points out, the electronics crowd out everything else or the content
It is entirely possible to play constructively with a computer or on
the Internet. Indeed, some of the most playful people are the designers
of computer technology, especially computer games.
But there is a huge difference between designing such a game and
playing one. The designer is creative, the player minimally so.
So when it comes to electronics, be careful.
We need to preserve and protect for children what I call "the human
moment:' I am such a champion of its formative power that I
wrote a book about it called Human Moments. The human momentas
opposed to the electronic moment-is any moment when you are
engaged with other people, live and in person. Playing with a friend in
the backyard is a human moment. Family dinner is a human moment.
Talking in the car as you drive somewhere is a human moment. Reading
aloud is a human moment.
Human moments are far richer than electronic moments, because
you get enormously more information in person than you can possibly
get electronically. You get body language, tone of voice, facial expression,
timing of words and sentences-none of which comes across
if you are not present personally. Human moments are also safer, in
that you cannot be anonymous, and you are much less likely to be
misunderstood or to take foolish risks.
Human moments provide the best context for play. That is not to
say electronic play is bad. But if it comes to replace the human moment,
then that is a bad effect.
However, you do not have to be with someone else in order to
play. As I sit here alone writing this book, I am playing. Granted, it is
disciplined play, but it is play nonetheless, as I am trying this word and
trying that, experimenting with this sentence, experimenting with
that. I a~ juggling words, as a juggler juggles balls or pins. For me this
is play, because I love to do it, even though I agonize over it often.
Most people who practice a craft feel this way. It is play, albeit often
Many adult forms of productive play find their roots in childhood.
My love of words goes back to family dinners during which my
aunt, uncle, and cousins (I spent more time at their house than at my
own) would play word games like Ghost. In Ghost the first player offers
up a letter of the alphabet chosen at random. Let's say it is a t. The
next player then must add a letter before or after the t without completing
a word. The game proceeded from player to player, each person
having to add a letter before or after the existing combination of
letters. You lost the game if you completed a word, but you could also
lose the game if the next player challenged you to name the word you
had in mind and you were bluffing, having no actual word in mind.
My family played this game so often at dinner that we got good at
thinking up difficult combinations of letters. To t, for example, I
might add the unexpected letter b. This meant that I was maintaining
I knew a word in which the combination tb could be found. If you are
new to the game, you might not be able to think of any such word. In
fact, there are quite a few, like bootblack, batboy, hatbox, and flatbed.
Difficult combinations of letters abound in English. That's because
there are so many compound words. But not all the difficult
combinations come from compound words. For example, can you
think of a word in which the combination uu appears? I know of only
Playing these games helped develop a love of words in me. My interest
probably began with a genetic predisposition toward play with
words; had I not had those genes, the games likely would have bored
me. But since I had the genes, the games drew me in and spurred me
on. In school I was one of those rare birds who actually liked grammar.
In fact, I still like to think about grammatical issues, and while I
don't know all the rules-far from it-1 enjoy trying to reason them
out. Just as a baseball fan might have a book of statistics nearby, I am
never far from a dictionary or a copy of Fowler's Dictionary of Modern
English Usage or Strunk and White's Elements of Style.
You can find out what your child is genetically predisposed t? enjoy
by noticing what she is drawn to play at. Lucy was drawn to
clothes; Jack, to puzzles; Tucker, to action figures and making up stories
about them. Once you start to play with something you have an
innate predisposition to enjoy, then you will start to play it more and
more. You will do what is called "practice" (which is the next element
in my series of five), but the process will not be onerous because you
will want to improve.
Some of these activities have more value than others. Many children
enjoy Nintendo, but the value of becoming expert is limited. On
the other hand, if your love of Nintendo leads you to learn about electronics
or computer science, then its value increases a good deal .
We parents witness the messy beginnings of talent and should always
be on the lookout for enthusiasms of any kind. Messes can be
good. Messes often indicate an enthusiasm. There is a story that Steven
Spielberg painted his kitchen yellow using egg yolks as paint when he
was a child. I don't imagine his mother said, "Oh, Stevie, how creative.
You are a genius in the making." But she might have consoled herself,
as she hounded young Steven to clean it up, that this was not the doing
of an unoriginal mind.
In childhood, talent usually shows up in play. If you want to find
out what your child might have a gift for, look at her play.
Play is almost always imperfect, chaotic, excessive, undisciplined,
and annoying to various adults. While we parents have to hold our
children responsible for cleaning up, apologizing, and making whatever
repairs seem appropriate, we should try never to kill the enthusiasm
and creativity behind the making of the mess. We can kill it with
ridicule or inappropriate punishment or anger or guilt.
One of the most common arenas for children to learn how to
play-and then to practice, achieve mastery, and gain recognitionis
in youth sports. Once the exclusive domain of boys, this world
has opened up to girls as well, so that both sexes now participate at all
Youth Sports: The Perfect Place
to Play ... but Be Careful!
There are about thirty-five million children in the United States between
the ages of three and fourteen who participate in organized
youth sports. At their best, organized sports are the ideal forum to go
through the five steps toward adult happiness that I outline in this
book. But by injecting youth sports with too much pressure from
adults-by turning them into work rather than play-we can ruin
them for kids. If you don't think this is a problem, consider the following
sad statistic: 70 percent of the children in youth sports stop playing
sports by the time they turn fifteen.
At its best, a team allows a child to connect with a group of her
peers as well as an adult mentor, called the coach. In this safe atmosphere
of connectedness, the children begin to play, whatever the
sport might be. As they play together, they have fun. This should be
the immediate goal: fun. Many parents, teachers, and coaches don't
realize that fun sets off a cascade of positive events. If you make having
fun the goal for your child in youth sports, and your child achieves
that goal, then it is likely your child will also achieve. all the rest: practice,
discipline, mastery, and recognition, as well as teamwork, sacrifice,
and the other intangibles that sports can so wonderfully instill.
As Al Skinner, the successful and dynamic basketball coach at
Boston College, said, "The purpose of youth sports is fun. If it's fun,
they'll practice more and improve, and success will follow:'
A' l Skinner gets it. Many well-meaning parents do not. By making
victory or stardom or discipline the first goal, you can kill the funand
the benefits of the sport-for the children.
Play that is fun leads to practice, as Al Skinner pointed out, and
practice leads to mastery. Mastery then leads to recognition by other
members of the team and other people as well, which in turn leads to
a deeper connection, more play, more practice, more mastery, and
more recognition. More victories ensue, but they are a by-product of
the process, not its first goal.
Youth sports highlight a mistake all of us parents can easily make.
In our concern that our children do well later in life, we can lose the
nerve it takes to let them have a childhood. We can cease to trust in
the process of childhood and in our child's ability to become whatever
he or she is meant to become. Instead, we can start to impose our own
predictable, prefabricated vision of success. We can demand high
achievement now-victories and awards in sports, top grades in school,,
or high-status activities that look good on a resume regardless of
whether the child has an interest in or aptitude for them-believing
that high achievement now is the best guarantee for a successful life. i
When I say "trust the process of childhood;' I do not mean we ,
parents should take an indifferent approach. I mean we should do
what I outline in this book. Let children be children. Let them play
and have fun before they take on the pressures of the adult world. Indeed,
playing and having fun when you are a child is the best way to
learn how to take on the pressures of the adult world later on.
If you trust in the process I outline and recognize play and fun as
essential elements of the process, if you allow a child to be a child first
and become an adult later, something amazing happens. The child becomes
who he or she is meant to become. Not who you or I want the
child to become but who the child wants and is meant to become.
The best preparation for dealing with intense pressure in adult
life, for actually enjoying pressure in adult life, is not subjecting a child
to pressure before he or she is ready. Just the opposite. It is giving hirrt
or her the chance to develop the muscles of confidence, optimism, and
hope, which can only be built slowly, on a unique, lazy summer morning,
a long morning we call childhood.
At the end of selected chapters about the five steps, I offer some tips
related to the particular step discussed in that chapter. I offer the tips
on creating connectedness at the end of each section describing a spe- '
cific kind of connectedness in the extended chapter on connectedness,
Here, then, some tips on play:
• Understand what play means and how important it is for children
(and adults). If you don't stop to think, you might make the
common mistake of assuming that a child who is going through the
motions at basketball practice is playing while a child who is sitting
under a tree with a friend is not. The child at basketball practice may
be just listlessly doing what he has been told to do, while the child beneath
the tree with his friend may be dreaming up the most amazing
spaceship ever invented.
• Make time for play. You may have to carve the time out of the
hardwood of the daily schedule, but do it. Children (and adults) need
free time to play. They need time when nothing is on the agenda. They
need time when they are not expected to be anywhere, doing anything.
• Limit electronic time. You may set aside free time only to see
your children fill it with Nintendo or chat rooms or instant messaging.
My advice is to limit this time, not forbid it. In our house the
rule is one hour per day of what we call "electronic time" (television,
video, computer, and Nintendo) during the week and two hours on
weekends. With the rest of their free time, we ask our children to
amuse themselves, find a friend, devise a game, read a book, or in
some other way use their imaginations to entertain themselves. Little
do they know that this time is perhaps the most important time of
their entire day.
• Don't overschedule your children with enriching activities that
obliterate their time for unstructured play. Make sure they have time
for just hanging out. We can give our children too much of a good
thing if we are not careful. Too many lessons (violin, soccer, computer
skills, Hebrew, and so forth). Too many exciting, preprogrammed activities.
The next thing you know, you create a kind of high-stimulation
junkie: a child who cannot think up anything on his own.
• Sports are great arenas for play, but don't turn youth sports into
a pressure-packed, hypercompetitive drama .. Youth sports-and all
athletics in childhood-ought to be a place to have fun. It ought to be
a place to plant the childhood roots of adult happiness, not adult rage
or regret. It ought to be a place to learn about teamwork and team loyalty,
cooperation, compromise, sacrifice, how to deal with people who
are more talented than you and less talented than you, how to win and
lose gracefully, and other life lessons. The win-loss record of the team.
• Relearn.how to play as an adult. Go out in the yard or sit down
on the floor, and let yourself go. Make funny noises. Do a somersault
(when was the last time you did one of those?). Be silly (that is, playful).
Make up a game (it's easy to do, once you let yourself go). Not
only will your children love this, but relearning how to play will also
help you in all aspects of your own life, especially love and work.
• Try to find a place where your children can be left alone to play.
The most obvious is a backyard with a fence, if you have one. Or a
neighborhood, if you have one. The old-fashioned neighborhood used
to come equipped with moms and grandmas looking out their windows,
keeping half an eye on all the children in the neighborhood so
that everyone was safe. Such neighborhoods have been supplanted by
the modern neighborhood of play dates and friends who live far away.
So you have to get creative to find the places where the kids can feel
somewhat on their own but still know they are safe. Maybe a park. Or
a camp. Or a team. Or a party where grown-ups are nearby.
• Make sure your child's school understands the value of play. Try
not to let your school eliminate recess, as some schools are doing in
order to provide more time for studying, so as to raise standardized
test scores. Make sure your school realizes that children need to play
and exercise regularly for their minds to be in the best shape to learn.
• Keep your family alive with humor. Humor is play. Where you
find kids laughing, you find kids playing. Studies show that where
you find laughter and play, you do not find much depression, anxiety,
• Now make up a tip yourself. What is one practical way you can
think of to encourage play in the lives of your children, yourself, and
your family? Maybe you could go hide something right now and at
dinnertime announce that after dinner there will be a game to see who
can find the hidden thing. Or maybe you'll go buy a ball you don't
have. Or maybe after dinner say, "Let's all go outside and lie down on
the grass and look up at the sky:' (I'm assuming it is summer. But you
could go lie down on the snow as well.) Or maybe make up a word
game you want to play at dinner. Or go play catch with your kids. Or
take them bowling; when was the last time you did that? Or maybe
take up fishing. That is the one I am going to do this summer. I am a
rotten fisherman, but recently all my kids went fishing and really liked
it. So this summer when we go off to our rented cottage on Lake
Doolittle, I am going to get us all simple rods and go fishing, even
though I barely know how to fish. This is one of the treats of play: you
don't have to be an expert to have fun.