Is It Still Just Play?
June 25, 2014 § 31 Comments
Someone sent me a link to this story on the Atlantic magazine’s website, about the importance of self-directed play and its relationship to something called executive functioning, which is defined in the article as “a broad term for cognitive skills such as organization, long-term planning, self-regulation, task initiation, and the ability to switch between activities. It is a vital part of school preparedness and has long been accepted as a powerful predictor of academic performance and other positive life outcomes such as health and wealth.”
I’m glad to see a mainstream publication like The Atlantic running stories about the importance of self-directed play. Obviously, I agree that self-directed play is important. But the thing that drives me nuts is that it’s not enough to say that self-directed play is important in-and-of-itself. According to the article (and it’s not just this article; I’ve seen others that use similar arguments), unstructured play is not an end, but a means to an end, which in this case happens to be advanced executive functioning, which is itself a vital part of school preparedness and a powerful predictor of academic performance. In other words, self-directed play really only matters because we’ve determined that it improves our children’s performance in the context of the industrial educational system.
For those of us who believe that our children – in conjunction with the world around them – are their own best teachers, I suppose it’s a small slice of affirmation to see an article like the one linked above. I guess I’m glad to know my boys are cultivating cognitive skills such as organization, long-term planning, self-regulation and so on, and lord knows I would’ve done well to cultivate these skills a bit more diligently myself. Furthermore, I suppose I’m glad to hear Fin and Rye are developing executive functioning, however much it feels to me like an ironic choice of words for the subject at hand (I can just hear it now: “Go on, shoo! Get outside and play with your friends so you can develop your executive functioning!”).
But the truth is reading the article makes me a little sad, if only because it confirms the extent to which we’ve lost our bearings. No longer is it enough for us to understand that free play is an inherently important part of childhood and maybe even of being an adult. Now, it must be understood that free play is important primarily because it furthers our children’s performance in the arena of school. Now, it must be understood that free play is important because it a “powerful predictor of health and wealth.” Don’t get me wrong: I’m sure these things are true. I mean, it’s all based on a study conducted by a bunch of PhD’s at the University of Colorado, so it must be true.
But here’s the thing: If there’s a goal in mind, there’s an agenda behind it. If there’s an agenda behind it, there’s an expectation.
And if there’s an expectation, is it still just play?