All work and no play, makes Johnny a dull boy. It also makes him a less successful one, and that's true whether Johnny is five or 50.

Let the kids play!

The case for this being true for kids is pretty well documented (though you might not realize it given the eerie silence on many playgrounds and neighborhood streets after school). In a long, fiery article for Reason, Lenore Skenazy and Jonathan Haidt recently broke down the benefits of free-form play - organized sports and educational iPad games don't count! - as well as the very real costs of keeping kids constantly scheduled and supervised. It's worth quoting at length:

All mammals play. It is a drive installed by Mother Nature. Hippos do backflips in the water. Dogs fetch sticks. And gazelles run around, engaging in a game that looks an awful lot like tag.

Why would they do that? They're wasting valuable calories and exposing themselves to predators. Shouldn't they just sit quietly next to their mama gazelles, exploring the world through the magic of PBS Kids?

It must be because play is even more important to their long-term survival than simply being "safe."...

In free play, ideally with kids of mixed ages, the children decide what to do and how to do it. That's teamwork, literally. The little kids desperately want to be like the bigger kids, so instead of bawling when they strike out during a sandlot baseball game, they work hard to hold themselves together. This is the foundation of maturity.

The older kids, meanwhile, throw the ball more softly to the younger ones. They're learning empathy. And if someone yells, "Let's play on just one leg!"--something they couldn't do at Little League, with championships (and trophies!) on the line--the kids discover what it means to come up with and try out a different way of doing things. In Silicon Valley terms, they "pivot" and adopt a "new business model." They also learn that they, not just grown-ups, can collectively remake the rules to suit their needs. That's called participatory democracy.

All in all, the article presents a pretty compelling case that "unstructured, unsupervised time for play is one of the most important things we have to give back to kids if we want them to be strong and happy and resilient." It also boils down to a pretty scathing critique of today's helicopter parenting style.

The case for more adult play

But while the argument for more play for kids is easy to make - if not terribly widely heeded - the case for more adult play is less intuitive. A world of looming economic insecurity, ecological disaster, and even nuclear war doesn't exactly seem like the type of place that would invite those responsible for steering the fate of humanity (i.e. all of us adults) to kick back and goof off awhile. Don't we all have better things to do?

Actually, nope, says science. If you really want to make the world a better place by doing great work, you really should give yourself permission to "waste" some time on play. And not just at home - on company time too.

"Research has found evidence that play at work is linked with less fatigue, boredom, stress, and burnout in individual workers. Play is also positively associated with job satisfaction, sense of competence, and creativity. Studies show that when a participant receives a task that is presented playfully, they are more involved and spend more time on the task," says the American Psychological Science blog, summing up the science on the subject.

Play makes individual employees happier and more productive, but it also helps teams gel together. "Teams of workers can benefit from play via increased trust, bonding and social interaction, sense of solidarity, and a decreased sense of hierarchy," the APA post continues.

So let your kids - and employees - play already! Maybe even take things a step further and model a little playfulness yourself. Come on, you know you want to, and science gives you a blank permission slip to stir a little more play into your life.

Published on: Nov 9, 2017
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