Is It Still Just Play?

June 25, 2014 § 31 Comments

When I close my eyes, this is what I see

When I close my eyes, this is what I see

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?


§ 31 Responses to Is It Still Just Play?

  • Eumaeus says:

    I sorely want to play more, unstructured like, no maybes about it… What is stopping me? In short, fear. And not that bs fear of Roosevelt’s. It is that other kind, wrapped up in breath and separateness…

  • Tonya says:

    I think it is a more a matter of each of us listening to our inner voices – but what has happened to many, I believe, is that they simple don’t listen and instead let all of the garbage from cultural norms point them to their answers.
    Here is a 10 minute video by Ken Robinson on Changing Education Paradigms.

  • … and if there’s an expectation, it usually involves the acquisition of some sort of gain for the one expecting….

    I once read that “having had an education is no guarantee for intelligence. It only shows you’re good at repeating the stuff you’re told”,
    So I for one do not take the word of a bunch of PhD for true. Far from… After all were these people were taught in today’s way of thinking…. which clearly shows in mentioned article.
    It is a sad state of affairs that kids no longer can play freely, without their behaviour or learning being analysed (and preferably steered). Sometimes they do not need to learn. To me unstructured play IS an end. Sometimes kids just relax and have fun. Something we adults should try more often ourselves, but I think we are so indoctrinated to produce, consume and have agendas that we no longer can… It’d be a waste of time.

  • Maribeth says:

    I do appreciate your conflicted feelings about this article in the Atlantic. It was obviously published as a “timely” piece for parents about to embark on the school summer break. I agree it is full of cultural bias. But, if you actually read the referenced research article from the University of Colorado, you can see they are not the ones connecting this correlation of free play and higher executive function with school success or future “health and wealth.” They are just simply studying the relationship through this particular study.
    In order to perform the study, the researches had to name the quality they were looking to study, which just happens to have the funky title “executive function.” Studies in the social sciences (at least good ones, I agree not all are good) are not opinions or agenda-driven, but rather are trying to get at human experience with the best available evidence-based procedures and analysis. I think if you read the original research you might find confirmation for your feelings! As a healthcare provider I am a believer in the scientific method and the importance of research. It is how we come to (hopefully) better solutions to our problems. We are constantly updating the ways we care for our patients based on scientific research (rather than religion, personal belief, or pseudoscience).
    Just because something comes from the university setting doesn’t make it suspect. In some ways your writing here today is just as agenda driven and full of cultural bias as the Atlantic article. You’re a better writer than that!

  • Maribeth says:

    “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.” This is the sentence that got me riled. It seems a cheap shot, particularly since you were falsely attributing to them what was actually the opinion of the writer of the Atlantic article. The research article does not call children students, nor refer to school in their analysis. Of course you can have an agenda, it is what makes your work provocative! I guess my bone to pick was that it doesn’t instill confidence when you misrepresent others. We all have valid contributions to make, even if our methods are different.

    • Ben Hewitt says:

      Perhaps, though worth pointing out that “it’s all” refers to the conclusions expressed in the article, not the study itself.

      No doubt I get frustrated when things I view as being simple common sense suddenly become credible when they’re “discovered” by a bunch of academics.

      But then, you know my bias!

      • Robin says:

        Common sense. I read a lot of studies and wonder why people waste millions of dollars every year to research things common sense tells us if we pay attention.

      • Julianna @My Watering Can says:

        “I get frustrated when things I view as being simple common sense suddenly become credible when they’re “discovered” by a bunch of academics.” Could not agree more. And I’m married to a PhD in science. The money that is utterly wasted on grants that serve no true purpose is astonishing.

  • DeeDee says:

    It’s a sad day when parents need Expert Scientific Research linking unstructured play to executive skills and school success to convince them to let their kids have time to play. When did our generation become so insecure about raising children that we feel like failures if our kids aren’t signed up for five extra-curricular activities? When did childhood turn into a rat race?

    I’ve been enjoying your blog for about a year now and I’m looking forward to reading your new book. We’re city homeschoolers down in Boston and I like hearing about the journeys of other families, every one unique.

  • Julianna @My Watering Can says:

    Interesting observations and questions. Just being happy. Just being. Those aren’t worthy of a future apparently. I’d say that “just being” will only reap more of the same. Not seeking or achieving, but those are a part of the unfolding process called life. It’s that unknown that people are so terrified.

    It’s a fully superstitious society. We look at “signs” and “predictors” without ever really appreciating just being. It’s no wonder no one’s happy. If we were truly happy, would we need to achieve?

  • Love this post, and couldn’t agree more that play should be an end in and of itself!

  • “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.”

    This statement cuts deep. It cuts in every known direction: Academic, home schooler, Mennonite, Sunni, 100,000 bloggers, all people ever and everywhere. Which is to say that (most) of our thinking unfolds like this: “As I think, so should you.” “This is how I live, why don’t you?”

    One must be careful careful careful when pontificating, be it about watermelons, warring, building dams, commenting on blogs, or rearing kids.

    We all have goals, we all have agendas, we all have expectations. We are all so human so human.

    I am here pontificating. I understand the irony. All I can say in my defense is that I once did not understand the irony.

  • ncfarmchick says:

    Once again, a thought-provoking post made even more interesting by the comments and responses. My Master’s Thesis involved creating a evaluation tool for use by therapists (PTs, OTs, and Speech Pathologists) to identify children who may be exhibiting delayed development in their ‘free play.” Even then, as interesting as the subject was and regardless of how much I enjoyed watching 100s of 2-4 year olds, I wondered how “free’ their play became the minute I started observing them and taking notes.
    I, too, shake my head in amazement whenever I hear of studies which reach conclusions which “prove” things that were once unquestioned and unexamined, they just were. Like when the term Nature Deficit Disorder was first mentioned, I thought “Well, of course, many children have no connection to the natural world anymore.” You see evidence of it everywhere, everyday.
    I happen to love reading your work because I think you take great pains to state that you do not claim your way of life is the only way, just your way (you’ve written about this many times in this space.) The fact that it proves to be inspirational to a lot of people helps to up those readership numbers and sell books, I’m sure, but does not make you an “agenda-pusher” in my opinion. Thank you, Ben. Peace!

  • ncfarmchick says:

    Oh, and I just had a conversation with an acquaintance the other day about a toy she recently bought her almost 2 year old son. Its main virtue, in her opinion, was that it “facilitates the development of fine motor skills.” OK….what happened to something just being…I don’t know… fun?

  • Dirk Anderson says:

    To be fair to the authors of the study, you’ve got to call it something. “Executive function” may have a negative connotation in that it evokes some guy in a suit shutting down an underperforming steel mill. But if you break the term down into its various components, you might say that it means the ability to objectively assess the world around you, identify your own personal goals, and work collaboratively toward those goals. Call it enlightened self-interest. Does that sound better?

    Anyway, what I took away from the article was the author’s admonition to pull your kid out of Little League and let him go play in the mud. And that’s all to the good.

  • Tres Jolie says:

    Executive function (also known as cognitive control) is an umbrella term for the management of cognitive processes, including working memory, reasoning, task flexibility, and problem solving as well as planning, and execution.

    In the best of all possible worlds an executive would have this capability and then be worthy of his or her title because they execute in a positive manner. Nowadays in some circles executive just means a guy who makes too much money for doing very little while everyone works their butts off around him.

    In this case they’re using a big fat word that basically means the ability to do stuff. Anyone can have the ability and it can be gotten by any number of methods including doing nothing to or for the kid. Which seems the kindest but is no guarantee.

    In general I think its a good thing that people are thinking about this stuff because it’s not so very long ago that little kids were seen and not heard and in some parts of society that’s still true. If people who can’t follow their own inner knowing have to have an expert support them and it’s a positive step then I’m all for it no matter how it came about.

  • NeoNoah says:

    Let us see education as it is, just learning. Learning, not indoctrination, learning is a process not a product. To see where our education system is taking us, read some Daniel Quinn, PLEASE…..Answer to your question Ben, no.

  • Eumaeus says:

    I agree with the commentators.

    Your child is not really into soccer because of some innate desire to play soccer. We desire our children to pursue their own interests but those interests will never be ‘their own’. They will be the be grafted on a parents interests. The minerals they bring forth will be from the soil of place they are raised in.

    But, we are human. This body is this way because we humans have lived in a certain way for a many tens of thousands of years. That should be taken into account.

    It is complicated stuff. Ben takes it to a level above common discourse. Where the fundamental questions remain tantalizingly in reach. Those nuts that don’t crack.

    So someone posted some bs about what do I think about this robot that teaches two year olds how to write computer code on FB and I was stumped how to respond. Of course, I think my kids would be better off playing with sticks or in the sandbox, blocks for heavens sake. But that city kid, on the oriental rug with the cars honking out the window and the plants and busy street below with tourists… maybe that kid should play with that robot and surreptitiously learn to write code and function executive like. I didn’t reply to their FB post.

    Anyway, I guess I didn’t say anything but what I’ve been saying for a while now. Don’t know if there is right or wrong. Just this happening. Then that. It’s that old monk story cliche. What did the monk say when the guy breaks his leg, “we’ll see” or something to that effect.

    Funny world we live in. Funny being a person with ideas to live up to.

    • Tres Jolie says:

      FWIW – In “The Four Agreements” Don Miguel Ruiz calls it the dream of the planet. “We are born with the capacity to learn how to dream and the humans who live before us teach us how to dream the way society dreams. The outside dream has so many rules that when a new human is born we hook the child’s attention and introduce these rules into his or her mind. The outside dream uses Mom and Dad, the schools, and religion to teach us how to dream.”

      What do you think? I’m still mulling it over. Ben does indeed take it to a level above common discourse. For myself common sense tells me to just do my best with what I’ve got, practice loving kindness and go about my business. I never could have home schooled my kid. Did I do wrong? What is wrong? Yes, indeed, we’ll see. Is it good or bad? We’ll see. Or not. Just when I think I’ve got something figured out, it’s not. Some things are beyond figuring. Just do. And think. And do again. I’m writing this to reinforce in myself what works for me. Thanks for listening.

      • Eumaeus says:

        Regarding the quote, I think it is true. But the true question is ‘what is dreaming’? While humans who live before us teach us how to dream the way society dreams, there are also all sorts of things and people that are also teaching us how to wake up.

        Regarding ‘figuring things out’, personally I find that when I look deeply the conditions i am seeking are already present. ‘The diamond is already in my pocket.’ <3

      • Tres Jolie says:

        So true: “The diamond is already in my pocket”. But who stands in for Odysseus?

    • ncfarmchick says:

      OK, who else thinks Ben and Eumaeus should co-author a book?

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