Can School (and Work) Be Like Play?

In a recent article, Boston College psychology professor Peter Gray argues that children today are “suffering from a severe deficit of play” that corresponds to their general loss of freedom. This stems from a variety of reasons: children increasingly attend school—or something structured a lot like school—at earlier ages and for longer hours. Adult-led activities have largely replaced child-led ones: organized sports teams, not pickup games; art lessons, not unstructured hours spent with sketchbooks and pencils or canvas and paint.

Furthermore, dangers both real and perceived—as well as changing social dynamics—keep kids under closer supervision than decades before. In New York City in the 1960s, my parents grew up with the kind of freedom that today might be considered verging on criminally negligent. My mom, at 10 or so, took the subway by herself to go to her dentist appointment; my dad spent long days playing all over the neighborhood, everyone’s parents keeping an eye on everyone’s kids, and mealtimes being the only things on the schedule.

Gray argues that there’s a connection between these losses of freedom—which collectively reduce children’s opportunities for play—and the startling increase in mental illnesses in children. The rates of generalized anxiety disorder and major depression among children are five to eight times more prevalent than they were in the 1950s using the same diagnostic tools, and the suicide rate for children under 15 has quadrupled. What’s the connection between play and these frightening outcomes?

While proving causation is difficult and fraught, Gray points out that anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts are frequently connected to feelings of hopelessness and of being out of control of one’s destiny and actions—in a word, trapped.

{This is a small taste of my most recent post for Christianity Today’s her.meneutics blog. Continue reading here, if you like, and consider sharing if you know someone who needs to hear it.}

And if you’re really interested in the topic, I highly recommend checking out Peter Gray’s book, Free to Learn.


How To Make (Psychological and Emotional) Space to Create.

My children spend more time building with Lego than just about anything else. While they covet and save up for sets like any good little American consumers, they spent most of their time re-mixing those sets (and their thousands of eBay purchased random pieces) into wildly new creations.

Seriously, some of the stuff they come up with is just incredible. They use pieces in ways that I’m sure the designers at Lego never intended. Ons the shelf in the other room there are elaborate dragons with hinged tails, spooky temples, and strange little machines with gears.

Almost always, what they make is surprising, unexpected, startlingly new.

Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be a worshipful paean to my children’s creativity. I’m not saying that their Lego models are going to end up in MoMA. It’s just that I want to share some observations from when a totally different thing enters the picture: the Lego building challenges.

They get these Lego magazines bundles of advertisements in the mail (thanks to my mom, who faithfully ships them overseas) and each features “building challenge” contests as well as pictures of children with their winning creations. There’s a prize of a $100 gift card for some of the contests.

For days after they read about a new “challenge” (build a dream home, build some kind of robot, etc.) they’ll work and re-work a project and pester us to photograph them and worry about whether or not they’ll win…and here’s the surprising part, the part you are not allowed to tell my children:

When they are building for the contest–for that $100 gift card and their picture in the magazine, their creations are startlingly less creative

All of a sudden, they are timid and anxious about their creations. They’ll ask me what I think of them–something they never do otherwise; usually they just present their work to me with the jubilance of people who know what they’ve accomplished is good–and, honestly, their for-contest work is always inferior to their regular work.

Why does this matter?

Because I think it shows us something important about motivation and its effect on creativity.

Most of the time, the kids build with Lego simply because that is what they love to do. They are pleasing no one but themselves. There is no point to the work except the work itself. There is no limit on the time spent working except the time they choose to spend on it.

So most of the time, they build in a state of flow, which is:

“Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

(psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi –say”CHICK-sent-me-high-ee”–in a Wired interview.)

If their only concern is the work, their work is amazing, and they work with confidence and pleasure. As soon as there’s a carrot–an extrinsic reward–their creative juices seem to dry up, and they’re building replicas of some other kid’s idea and worrying about whether they’ll ‘win.’

This is not a new idea, or a strange one. It’s the idea that has driven alternative models of education and employment.

“There is something really special about when you first realize you can figure out really cool things completely on your own. That alone is a valuable lesson in life.”

(Florian Wagner)

When we were both in graduate school, my friend and I reminded each other to find our “no pressure zones.” For us that involved a lot of intentional non-procrastination and striving actually to enjoy what we were learning. It also involved studying together in pleasant locations and drinking lattes.

Sometimes I am all but paralyzed by the fear of doing what I do badly OR by the desire for external affirmation. When I am in that mode, pretty much everything I write, say, draw, or cook is total crap. It’s when you move into the pleasure and rhythm of the work itself, I find, that things turn out well, which is annoying because I’m basically saying that I think people–or at least I–work best when I manage not to be so worried about how it will turn out, but instead to be absorbed in the work itself.

For me, faith is a part of this, because I find it very, very difficult not to seek extrinsic rewards and affirmation, but remembering God’s grace allows me to offer it to myself and others, and to stop trying to keep score.

“Grace cannot prevail until our lifelong certainty that someone is keeping score has run out of steam and collapsed.” (Robert Farrar Capon)

Your thoughts?

Admitting Secret Desires

So I’m back to regularly bringing Saturday night dinners to Mrs. S. at the nursing home. While I long ago gave up on cooking for her from Fannie Farmer (Ms. Fannie’s recipes being a bit too unreliable for my taste), I do try to cook foods that are familiar to Mrs. S., who also enjoys occasional take out from Brick Oven Pizza (who around here doesn’t?) and random mid-week visits with coffee and donuts from Blue Duck Bakery (again, who wouldn’t?)

One of the reasons (I think) that the S’s marriage lasted truly ’til death did them part was that they both loved to please the other. And food was a big part of that love language. When Mr. S retired from working, he decided that they’d eat many of their dinners in restaurants so that Mrs. S could ‘retire,’ too–his way of thanking her for the decades of excellent meals which he spoke well of pretty much to his dying day.

But whereas Mr. S was usually forthcoming with what he liked and didn’t like, Mrs. S has always been much quieter. So much so, that a few weeks ago, I had to pry her dessert request out of her.

(I don’t always ask her what she wants. Just sometimes.)

Me: What do you want for dessert next week? Whatever you ask for, I’ll make it.

Edie: Brownies are the easiest.

Me: I don’t want to do what’s easiest! I want to do what you want.

Edie: I don’t know if I should say.

Me: Mousse? Pie? Any kind of pie? Rice pudding?

Edie: No, not rice pudding…they give us that a lot here, and it doesn’t taste homemade.

Me: Tell me what you want!

Edie: says nothing, looks away, ashamed.

Me: (thinking: what is she possibly thinking of? A cake out of which Chippendales pop?)

Edie: (uncomfortably) I’d like a chocolate layer cake. With chocolate frosting.

Me: (thinking: is that all? Finally!)

And so on Saturday morning, I pulled out my stand mixer, made a terrific mess:

and a classic chocolate layer cake from The Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook:

To tell the truth, I’m not altogether sure that Mrs. S even remembered asking for the chocolate layer cake. And her appetite was smaller than usual, so she ended up eating only half of it. But neither of those things matters.

What matters to me is that she was able, finally, to admit her secret desire, and that, by God’s grace, I was able to meet it.

I’m still trying to figure out why that feels important, right and good.

Maybe it’s because I read somewhere that American women are embarrassed to buy candy bars.

Maybe it’s because I grew up in a tradition that taught that all (or at least most) desires are evil and not to be fulfilled.

Maybe it’s because admitting desires takes trust and facilitates closeness.

What do you think? Did you grow up in a tradition that taught you to be suspicious of desires? When have you experienced freedom and pleasure in admitting what you want?