I forwarded a notice to a friend about an upcoming volunteer clean-up event. It’ll be on a Saturday morning, on one of the local beaches.  My friend has two young sons who, whenever they have the chance, walk around their neighborhood picking up litter.  They learned these stewardly ways by watching their parents, but both of them seem, at the ages of 4 and 6, to have surpassed those parents in their dedication to tending the nearby earth.

Their mom responded to my email to let me know that the boys were very excited about the beach clean-up day.  “They have soccer on Saturday mornings,” she wrote, “but they may just have to miss a week for this; it’s more up their alley anyway.”

The boys like soccer, and they’ll probably keep playing at least for awhile because it’s a relatively fun way for them to spend a Saturday morning.  But their mom knows soccer doesn’t invigorate and inspire them the way cleaning up the beach will.  It’ll be lots more inconvenient, and to an uninformed onlooker it might appear as though she’s keeping her kids from playing, from being kids.

But the truth is, kids are more connected with the playfulness of work they take seriously than adults tend to be. For these two boys, there is more satisfaction and delight available in tidying up a patch of land than in running up and down the soccer field. For other kids it’s the opposite.  And no one’s right or wrong about how kids should be spending their time. People, including kids, are just different from each other, and when we’re given the chance to be who we are and care about what we care about, the lines between chores, work, fun, and play will blur all the way until we can’t see them anymore.

Chore, not chore

The two young boys who live across the street spend most of their outdoor time either shoveling dirt or carrying water around in a watering can.  It’s not because they don’t have anything else to do; there are various “toys” and more traditional play options available.  They’re doing this by choice.  And it’s easy to see that they take it very seriously and also that they delight in it.  When under the burden of a probably oversized load of cargo, they’ll squeal cheerfully “This is so heavy!”

No one has told them yet that this is the kind of work we consider chore.  To them, it’s just one thing to do.  They do it because they’ve seen the adults around them doing it (in the course of tending yards and gardens), and found that when they do it themselves, they like it.  The digging and carrying feels good and purposeful.  (Or maybe just fun.)

I know several other young children with this kind of relationship to the types of tasks and activities that are generally understood to be a drag – one who loves sweeping and vacuuming, another who insists on being included in cooking and washing dishes, a third who always wants to be in charge of organizing.

We run the world and talk about it to kids as though there are fun things and not-fun things, chore things and not-chore things, work things and not-work things.  But we know it isn’t really like that.  We know that just as digging and hauling dirt is fun for one person while it’s boring drudgery for another, a 5-mile run is a dreaded chore for one and the best part of the day – a blissful rush of peace and fulfillment – for another.

So I wonder if we might be wise to stop teaching kids the age-old mantra that you have to do things you don’t want to because that’s the way life works.  Maybe things would actually work better, all around, if we let kids see us acknowledging and celebrating preference.  Maybe everyone would get to keep doing the things they were attracted to when they were young – the things that felt the most purposeful and fulfilling.  And maybe everything that there is to do – the art, the sport, the building, the teaching, the farming, even the accounting – could still get done.

Another good game

Here’s another fun and think-y game to try: Combo King, from Gamewright.

It’s got some in common with Yahtzee (rolling for particular combinations of things, adding, multiplying, etc.) but changes itself up from one turn to the next for, it seems, a more dynamic kind of play.  Don’t get me wrong – I’m a Yahtzee fan, too.  I just think this one might make a good precursor and/or alternative with some of the same or more fun and benefit.

And I recommend keeping the whole book/cover judgment adage in mind…


A young friend alerted me to a game called Anomia. I’m not sure how I missed this one.

The game has a lot in common with Taboo – both are great facilitators of mental agility.  In Taboo the challenge is to find unusual or unexpected verbal pathways in the brain for directing a team member to a given word.  In Anomia, the challenge is to retrieve from your brain a word or phrase that falls into a particular category, on the spot.  (The task is similar to the one found in Scattergories, but it’s simpler with Anomia but also a little more… fast and furious.)

Is it ‘just’ for fun?

“Just for fun” is really different from “for fun.”  The “just” suggests that we don’t have much regard for fun.

We use it on ourselves and we use it on kids.  We start teaching kids early in their lives that things that are just for fun are less important than the ones that are for something else.  Fun, we have come to imagine, is somehow in opposition to progress and productivity, so we’re careful to disabuse children of the notion that the pursuit of fun should be their central aim. (As kids get older, we continue this thread by distinguishing for them between things that are educational and things that are not.  Games and other pursuits that we’ve deemed educational get more adult respect and support than those that are just for fun.)

The work of researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi over the past five decades suggests that what children are pursuing when they’re fun-seeking (which is often much of the time) has a lot in common with what Csikszentmihalyi calls flow – a condition that seems to be present in the happiest, healthiest adults.  These adults are not the ne’er do wells you may imagine, having a great time but getting nothing done.  They’re people who have sought out – in their work and in the rest of their lives – an experience of connection with what they’re doing that helps them stay energized and productive.  They might well describe their jobs as fun.

We can learn so much by watching what fun looks like on children.  By noticing what they call fun; what they seem to think of as fun.  By noticing the difference between things they do for fun when they’re trying to avoid other things and things they pick up for their own sake and seem rejuvenated by.  We can get all sorts of hints and clues as to where kids’ sources of flow may lie, and thus what pursuits may ultimately serve them best.

Like Reading?

Kids often tell me they don’t like reading, except for things they like.

What the heck?  I can’t tell you how many zillions of times I’ve heard this.  Somehow we’re giving them the impression that  these People Who Like Reading that they’ve heard of and know about like reading everything.  When I encounter this, I assure whomever it is, up one side and down the other, that this is not the case. I know because I’d make a good Exhibit A.  I love reading things I like and want to read, and I detest reading anything I don’t like and don’t want to read.  It sounds ridiculous.

One way we could probably curb this confusion is to stop saying simply that we love to read.  It’s usually not true, anyway, without the rest of the sentence.  It’s like I was saying here about finishing the sentence to make it true.  Unless you really just plain love to read anything that’s put in front of you – love it for the reading of it and not anything to do with the content – you could do many kids a great service by saying something like “I love to read when the writing’s really good,” or “I love to read books that are about people like me,” or “I love to read road signs,” or “I love to read magazines.”  Then they’d start to get a more accurate picture of this reading world of ours, in which we all have taste and rarely read just because there are words in front of us and we want to spend time reading them because we don’t have anything better to do.

Let them know there’s something in it for you, and then they’ll have the freedom to find out whether or not there might be anything in it for them.


My cousin invited me to play an online word game with her yesterday.  I don’t like spending any extra time at the computer, but I’ve got a weak spot for word games, so I agreed to try it.  After playing once on my lunch break, and being something less than satisfied with my score, I found myself waiting for the day to be over so I could try again.  I knew I wasn’t going to come anywhere close to scoring as high as the others who were playing, but I really wanted to do better than I had done.  It made me curious – the outcome of the game has absolutely no impact on my life whatsoever, but there I was looking forward to playing it again, just to see how I could do at this thing that I find interesting.  I didn’t just want to play, though, I wanted to See How I Did.  I wanted the results, and I wanted to keep comparing them with my other results.

I’ve seen this happen with kids, too, this kind of intense relationship with results – whether it’s short lived or longer standing.  But I’ve also seen lots of resistance to results.  I think that adults think that kids don’t want to know how they’re doing, or don’t think it’s important to know, but in fact they really do want to know how they’re doing. It’s just that they want to know how they’re doing on the things that they’re convinced are important.  That of course raises the question of whether or not they should have to be convinced of what’s important, and I won’t get into that now, because I only have a few minutes and that one’s a real button-pusher, but I thought it might be a good inquiry to raise.  See where you notice your children being really interested in results, and where you see them being less interested…


For those days when the world feels a little thirsty for new possibilities…