The life of a fourth grader is an alarmingly busy one.
The schedules of fourth graders are often inundated with the pressure to pursue task after task, activity after activity, in our fervent attempt to ensure they taste the fullness of life. They ping-pong from classroom lectures to soccer practice to guitar lessons to French tutoring to family pizza night to math homework.
All of a sudden, it’s 8 pm and your fourth grader just wants to disassociate on their Nintendo because they’re overstimulated and dog-tired from working a 12-hour shift.
Scheduling kids to death has demoted play to the bottom of their to-do list.
We’ve left them no time to dress up in a superhero costume in the morning and sprint through the house pretending they can fly (hurry up and go change – we’re going to be late for school!). There is no time to build mud castles on the bank of the creek that runs through the backyard (go wash off – you’ve got dance rehearsal in an hour!). There is no time to stare out the window and imagine what those two squirrels would say if they could talk (stop daydreaming – you’ve got homework to finish!).
In fact, play has taken such a backseat in the lives of our kids that a 2019 survey found 75% of kids under 12 are not getting enough play time.
And what play time kids are getting has gravitated indoors and onto screens, so much so that the term Nature Deficit Disorder has emerged. It’s not a legitimate medical diagnosis (yet), but a term coined by Richard Louv’s book, Last Child In The Woods, to explore the negative impact of kids spending less and less time playing outdoors.
Play has become a last-minute thought, like a distractingly busy religious person’s prayer, hurriedly whispered as he falls asleep. I can’t believe I forgot to play today.
The fact that we have to even ask ourselves “how do we incorporate play into our kid’s day?” is an anomaly. The expected question might be “how do we stop our kids from playing?”
Although well-intentioned (we want them to be well-rounded! we don’t want them to miss out! we want them to discover their passions!) micromanaging our kids’ schedules actually does the opposite of what we want it to do.
Kids do not need more instruction, more conformity, more people telling them what to do and when to do it, to taste the fullness of life.
They need time to do nothing.
They need leisure, idleness, boredom. They need less structure. They need dirt under their fingernails. They need freedom to play.
Because play probably does a lot more work than you think.
Why does play matter?
Children are phenomenally capable of self-direction when allowed to be.
We can leave them alone for hours and they will build, create, imagine, and discover amazing things. This self-directed learning (play) is a core part of every kid’s development: physical, emotional, cognitive, and social.
Play develops motor skills, critical thinking skills, and problem-solving skills. It teaches independence, resilience, and creativity. It nurtures confidence, empathy in relationships, and coping skills for challenging situations.
Kids love to mimic what they see in the world around them. That’s why they love to play “kitchen” and “school” and “store.” When we give them room to experience reality through the unique twist of their own imagination, they learn how to build the bridge between childhood and adulthood. Play, especially outdoors, is how they directly experience the world themselves.
Research shows that direct proximity to nature enhances children’s cognitive abilities, attention spans, problem-solving abilities, creative processes, and self-regulation. Playing in mud and dirt is actually good for kids’ health. It is no surprise, then, that playing outdoors also reduces children’s stress and symptoms of ADHD.
But the benefits of play run even deeper than emotional and cognitive development.
How play is linked to genius
Recurring patterns emerge in geniuses throughout history: for one, they have vast amounts of unstructured free time during childhood.
In Henrik Karlsson’s Childhoods of exceptional people, he does a deep dive on how “immersion in boredom” is a “universal” element in the lives of exceptional people.
A common theme in the biographies is that the area of study which would eventually give them fame came to them almost like a wild hallucination induced by overdosing on boredom. They would be overcome by an obsession arising from within.
Mozart was drilled on the piano and violin by his father, but the compositions he undertook on his own. [Blaise] Pascal, as we have already mentioned, wrote several of Euclid’s proofs after self-teaching math in his spare time. Alan Turing, who was raised in boarding schools, also seems to have self-taught a lot of mathematics (at fifteen, he derived the inverse tangent function before having encountered calculus!) while being an outcast at school and facing resistance from the teachers, who thought his interests were not ”well-rounded”.
These exceptional people did not stumble upon their obsessions by being spoon-fed a carefully curated schedule from their parents or teachers. They stumbled upon their obsessions because they were bored, and naturally, they reacted as children do. They began to play.
In Erik Hoel’s Why we stopped making Einsteins, he analyzes the decline of genius in relation to kids’ lack of freedom and self-direction in the learning process.
Then they [kids] are thrown into the school system, a competitive academic meritocracy wrapped in an obtuse hierarchical bureaucracy, a structure in which they will spend most of their young adult life, forced to learn mostly from their peers, who know as little as they do. Those who can’t sit through it are given drugs until they can. If they happen to test well or their parents spend the money, they might end up in slightly smaller classes, and with slightly better teachers, and with slightly smarter peers, but the structure will be the same. The first real intellectuals that most children meet in person are their college professors—already at eighteen and stuck in a class with dozens of other people (even at Harvard, introductory courses are often in the hundreds). Is it any surprise that such methods don’t reliably produce geniuses? Is it not anathema to how humans normally become interested in things?
The pattern matches up. Hours of free time invites kids to explore, create, imagine, discover. Idleness fosters play, curiosity, and obsession. Boredom is a spark plug.
While there are many channels of genius – and no definitive way to capture, hone, define, or become it – what we do know is that play begets genius.
True genius happens when play and education become one.
The role of play in education
Imagine a young boy sitting in math class.
He has just come in from recess, playing kickball with his friends. His hair is stuck to his forehead with sweat. The teacher is standing at the front of the room, lecturing about addition. His mind is everywhere but the lecture. Compared to the vibrant world outside the window – blue sky, hot sun, bees droning, birds chirping, plenty more kickball to be played – addition is mind-numbingly dull. But this is “practical” education. These are “serious” matters. No play allowed.
Now, imagine this same young boy at the pool with his dad.
It’s Saturday, so the pool is crowded. He’s splashing around in the shallow end with his friends. But as he moves from the shallow end of the pool into the deep end, he notices the numbers on the side of the pool measuring the depth of the water. 4 feet. 7 feet. 10 feet. “You know,” his dad says. “Your friend Johnny could stand on your shoulders and you still wouldn’t break the surface of the water. Isn’t that crazy?”
And just like that, the boy is engaged. Really? He starts to ask questions. He calls Johnny over so they can test it out. Suddenly, addition is interesting. Suddenly, he cares.
Not only do kids learn twice as fast when they activate the play circuit in their brain, but play is how kids fall in love with learning.
When kids don’t love what they’re doing, when they’re not actively engaged with the task at hand, they start to go through the motions. They feel disconnected from their work. They start to make sullen remarks about how they “hate school.”
But when education is play-driven, kids are engaged, locked in, thirsting for more knowledge. Play becomes practical, practice becomes playful, and the world opens up.
How to prime the environment of play
First, stop worrying about kids’ schedules.
If kids are too busy with afterschool activities and play dates, then they don’t have time to get bored enough to play. As adults, we should actively defend this time. The unstructured parts of childhood are where the most important self-discoveries and the capacity for genius are realized.
This means that, honestly, we don’t have to do much of anything. Just give kids more freedom, more space, and more leisure time to figure out what they’re actually interested in.
Then, we can cultivate a rich, “always-on” learning environment.
We want to ceaselessly stoke the fire of kids’ imagination by welding play and education together. As a parent, you can do this by filling your home with board games, math games, card games; picture books, chapter books, coloring books. Have art supplies, legos, and wooden blocks readily at hand.
Since kids love to mimic the real world, provide play kitchens, play dollhouses, play money. Give them The Dangerous Book for Boys or The Daring Book for Girls. Stock your home with creativity-inspiring toys. Giving kids a piece of “the real world” allows their imagination to roam and their creativity to explode.
But play doesn’t have to be “a kit.”
You can give your kid cardboard boxes, old blankets, hand-me-down clothes, and challenge them to build a fort. You can help initiate play-driven education, like asking your kid to do a puzzle together after dinner, or suggesting a Sunday hike where you compete to see how many different kinds of trees you can identify. You can encourage music and dancing. Play-driven education like this is fuel for kids’ development.
As a parent, always be on the lookout for learning opportunities like the dad in the pool. Be attuned to your kid’s interests and ask them questions, challenge them, teach them, indulge with them in their excitement.
And for goodness’ sake, you can let your kid eat a little dirt.