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.

 

Making Beauty Out of Next To Nothing–a post at Convergent Books

Not long ago, I spent several weeks learning to make pottery in a simple studio on the shore of Lake Malawi. Initially I’d been most interested in “throwing” pots on the electric wheel, which is mesmerizing and almost magical in its speed. The spinning surface facilitates the transformation of lumps of clay into vessels of varying shapes with only the slightest coaxing of the hands.

But I soon found the pace of the wheel overwhelming. I drifted away from the machinery and toward two old village women, Gloria and Fatima, whom the studio employs as “traditional” potters.

They spoke almost no English, and I almost no Chichewa, so they taught me as one might teach the very young or very old, with hands guiding mine, with nods and smiles of approval and the gentlest of corrections. A finger would nudge mine into the correct position for forming a curve; a hand placed over my hand would help shape the rim as it should be shaped.

As we made pots, they taught me to speak the names and uses of each pot: this one, an mpica for cooking ndiwo; that one, an msugo for carrying madzi from the well.

Their work, with its deliberate movement and delicate repetition, with its earthiness and its practicality, was remarkable. It was no less mesmerizing or near-magical than the wheel, and, indeed, much like the wheel, but so much slower. It was calming just to watch the women make pots, and it filled me with something like hope. Here were artisans who knew how to take mud from termite mounds and, using nothing but their hands, a scrap or two of bamboo, and perhaps a shell or a bit of broken pottery, would coax it into something useful. And not just useful. Whether they were forming a vessel for common or ceremonial use, they made it beautiful.

Not to mention—once tried by fire—durable.

Gloria’s smile, broad and beautiful, was, like hard laughter, close to its opposite: nearly a grimace. It spoke of joy as well as pain—of making beauty out of next to nothing, since that is what life had given her. Of earthen vessels bearing the weight of glory within them. I thought of the trials that forged but did not crack them, that, I imagine, gave them something of their patience and burnished grace, and etched maps of sorrow and joy around the eyes and mouths of their beautiful faces.

{Continue reading at Convergent. Convergent Books is a new religion imprint from the Crown Publishing group dedicated to an open, inclusive & culturally engaged exploration of issues related to faith.}