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All Work and No Play

Published in ChicagoNow, February 5, 2014

It's been over 25 years since Robert Fulghum published Everything I Wanted to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. I have to wonder where today's young children learn the important things he listed back then? Why has open ended, spontaneous, unstructured play just for the sake of having fun, become such a problem?

The Importance of Being Lazy by Al Gini shares that play comes from the middle English plega which means “to leap for joy, to dance, to rejoice, to be glad.” Play is about “awe, wonder, rapture and enthusiasm... (giving) ourselves permission to imagine, to be creative, to be curious.” Gini raises many thought provoking points about how we as adults model a business-like approach to life for our kids:

  • Being busy has become synonymous with being successful in 21st century America.

  • Multitasking is admired as a desirable way to get through the day.

  • America is the most vacation starved country in the industrialized world.

  • Americans regard sleep in the same way people in starving countries talk about food.

  • Workaholism is probably the only addiction that is actually rewarded.

  • Most of us use email and cell phones to stay in touch with work while on “vacation.”

  • Weekends for most families are packed with chores and activities and feel like “controlled chaos.”

  • Shopping has become our major leisure activity — we spend seven times more time shopping than playing with our children and far more time shopping than reading.

While it may seem like a good thing to teach reading, writing and arithmetic as early as possible, most early childhood experts agree that play is crucial for both social and academic development. Once children start kindergarten, and sadly even before in some early childhood programs, play takes a back seat to formal instruction.

When the No Child Left Behind mentality gripped our nation, some kindergarten teachers lamented:

  • "The play kitchen, I had to remove it to make space for the math station and the reading station.”

  • "The dress-up area, I miss it. If a child is timid, playing in the dress-up area helps him make friends.

  • "[Children] need to socialize and learn to share…they need that interaction with their peers. That has been lost. There is a lot of fighting now.”

I still believe that play is the work of young children. And by young, I mean extending into the elementary school years. Children learn by doing, creating, and exploring. Memorizing facts, drilling children to take tests, and racing to the top begins far too early in our society. The sad result is the loss of play and fun in the lives of many children.

As the wise Fred Rogers said,

"When we treat children's play as seriously as it deserves, we are helping them feel the joy that's to be found in the creative spirit ... It's the things we play with and the people who help us play that make a great difference in our lives."

Remember the proverb, All work and no play make Jack a dull boy? Let's bring play back into our lives, especially for our children.


by Laurie Levy
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