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.

One child’s hockey is another child’s…

It’s been cold enough this winter that the pond in the park is frozen.  When I drove past on my way home the other day at sundown, several kids were playing hockey on the ice.  Practicing, actually.  They were taking turns shooting pucks at a makeshift goal, the way they would in an organized drill. They were studying, refining, mastering, though no coach was there to direct them.

It’s safe to assume that at least a few of those kids are not showing the same discipline and determination in their schoolwork that they were that night on the ice.  Many of them likely struggle through much of their days sitting still, reading, answering questions. Their best selves emerge late in the day, out there on the ice. We exclaim “That’s because hockey is fun!”  “It’s different! It’s a game.”  “They have to do schoolwork for their own good but it’s not fun so of course they resist it!”

But these explanations – the words we use to dismiss the variation in commitment we see in kids – don’t hold up when checked against what we know about the diversity of actual people, based on how each of us chooses to spend time when it’s up to us. There’s no list of inherently fun things and another of un-fun things for kids to consult when they’re choosing what to love and where to direct their resistance.  (Though there do seem to be ways in which turning something into an actual game can alter the experience of it.)

Hockey is something some people love, with all the zooming around, the crashing, the strategy, the repetition, the force.  And hockey is something other people wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot… stick – all that high speed and spilled blood and chaos and repetition and bruising. For some people, hockey is fun. For others, yikes.

So it doesn’t work to say hockey IS fun, just as it doesn’t work to say that schoolwork IS NOT fun.  I sat with a 14 year-old the other day who, when she arrived at my office, was exhausted and deflated from a week of racing around from class to activity to part-time job.  After a few minutes of reviewing practice SAT questions, she was invigorated and delighted.  She loves to think about words, about what they’re doing in sentences and paragraphs, how they can be interpreted in more than one way. Others would have wanted to poke their eyes out at the thought of spending time on this kind of thing.

Fun is not a fact, it’s a taste. It’s a specific and dynamic way of relating to an activity.  When a person is experiencing it, they’re often driven to push themselves toward deeper mastery.  Someone who under one set of circumstances appears lazy and indifferent can in the context of something that’s fun for them look like a patient and driven student, striving for excellence.

We can choose to roll our eyes and scowl when we see kids favoring the things that are fun for them, or we can get interested in what they’re choosing. If it’s future work and livelihood we’re worried about (when they show preference for things we think are distracting them from what’s important), we’ll be wise to notice that kids’ choices can actually tell us a lot about what kinds of work they may be suited to – what kinds of participation and contribution might be right for them.

If we can find the courage to open ourselves up to it, we’ll see that whatever is setting those fires of commitment and determination under kids can expertly inform the guidance we offer them.  What we learn from their choices and preferences can help make it possible for us to offer kids the chance to carve paths through life that make the best possible use of the capacities and commitments they’re already carrying around with them.

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.

Toughing it out

I’ve been thinking about one of the arguments I often hear for keeping kids in school even when they’re miserable, even when it’s taking a toll on their confidence and vitality.  “They need to learn to deal with hardship,” people often tell me.  “Life isn’t easy, so we shouldn’t make childhood easy.  I’ve had hard times, and it made me stronger. I learned determination and how to cope.”

I don’t disagree that hard times and challenge can make people stronger.  But there are two things that concern me about this line of thinking.  First, there are different kinds of hard times.  There are naturally occurring hard times (sickness, loss of a loved one), hard times that one chooses (a craft to master or a dream to realize) and then there are hard times that one party manufactures for the presumed sake of another.  Different types of hard times and challenge yield different lessons and results.  Adults don’t tend to say “School was a miserable experience for me, but I’m so glad I had to suffer through it.” I do however hear a lot of people say things like “I’m so glad I didn’t quit taking karate when it got hard, because now I know I’m capable of more than I sometimes realize.”

The nature of the hard times makes a difference. The ones we insist on just for the sake of teaching the art of surviving hard times don’t seem to have the same positive effect as the ones that are naturally occurring or chosen.

Second, it seems to me that even if we’ve decided that it’s worth it to impose hard times on a person (as we do when we force school and other mandates on kids), we’d be wise to more carefully consider the relative cost.  Maybe kids are learning valuable lessons by enduring the hardship that school is for many of them.  But at what cost?  Does the benefit justify the cost?

I mentioned the book Reality is Broken a few weeks back.  I’m further into the text now and still maintain that it’s one of the top few books I’d recommend to parents trying to understand the various preferences and resistances that are common among present-day children (attraction to video and other games, interest in technology, lack of interest in and commitment to traditional academic training, in spite of ability and potential).  In the author’s discussion of Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi‘s work on flow “(the satisfying, exhilarating feeling of creative accomplishment and heightened functioning,” according to Csíkszentmihályi), she mentions Csíkszentmihályi’s belief that the structure of games can teach us a great deal about the structure of good sustainable work.  “Games teach us how to create opportunities for freely chosen, challenging work that keeps us at the limits of our abilities, and those lessons can be transferred to real life.  Our most pressing problems – depression, helplessness, social alienation, and the sense that nothing we do truly matters – could be effectively addressed by integrating more gameful work into our everyday lives.”

Kids are (often desperately) trying to get us to realize this.  They arrive with the intuition and wisdom to recognize which things are going to offer that experience of accomplishment and heightened functioning, and which are not.  We think that as adults we know better.  We think that if we give kids too much freedom to pursue what intrigues and inspires them they will not be prepared for adulthood.  But do we know that for sure?  And if we don’t, isn’t the world in dire enough straits – financially, socially, emotionally – to merit our taking the time and energy to consider that the way we’ve been doing things thus far may be flawed or lacking in some way? That kids might in fact know something about preparing one’s self to thrive in the world that we’ve lost sight of?

Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken walks readers through the ways in which games are structured such that they can teach us how to engage with the world in a satisfying way that gives us the experience of exhilaration and even joy while including challenge and hardship, calling on our capacity for persistence and determination in the face of it.

Many of us are often so resigned to our own plights of boredom, anxiety, and worse that we storm around insisting that real life is real life and it’s hard, so stop trying to play.  Get serious.  McGonigal invites us to consider that it may in fact be that the things we truly need – safety and security, good health, joy and contentment – become more readily available when our first priority is to connect people with the activities that offer them the most engagement and sense of accomplishment. The way games do.

What if kids aren’t looking for an easy way out when they turn away from the things we’re accustomed to insisting upon, when they turn toward the likes of games and other things we think are “just for fun?”  What if they’re looking for vitality, connection, accomplishment, and we’d be wise to let their wisdom set us on a new course?

Now and later

In case you haven’t seen it yet, check out the story of a 9 year-old in Los Angeles who built an arcade out of cardboard.

The film is getting lots of attention for this child’s creation, and it’s getting donations for a college fund the filmmakers have set up.  I’m hoping that the collection will be helpful for this family, but I can’t help wondering if the donations could be even better used.  This guy’s already building and imagining complex designs and solutions.  What if instead of setting aside money for him to use for college several years from now, they arranged to fund an apprenticeship to a successful inventor, or hired him a business manager to help market what he thinks up?  What if we found a way to support him without making him wait to go to college to get qualified to make use of the skill and ingenuity he’s already using?

Addendum: Better yet, what if instead of only offering help to him and his family, we took the opportunity to ask for his help?  To invite him to consult on any of the myriad design, engineering, logistical problems that currently challenge us.  Now, while his mind is clearly flexible enough to be resourceful, to think in new unexpected ways, to make purposeful (and repurposeful) use of things and ideas, to turn vision into reality.

For your young engineer/inventor/technician/designer/artist

Wow.  Look at this.

Unvilifying the video games

I’m reading Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken, about how games (of the video variety in particular) may not be the useless waste of time and brain power they’re reputed to be.

It’s one of the most powerful pieces of writing I’ve read in a long time.  I don’t play video games, and until I started reading the book I wished that fewer people would play them less of the time.  That wish didn’t stop me from encouraging parents to resist the temptation to forbid the playing of video games out of hand, and vilify screen time in general, but I still wished.

So I’ll say this.  If you have or know a child who likes to play video (or other) games, and you find yourself trying to get him or her to play less, this could be one of the most important books you ever read.  Not because it will necessarily change your mind about anything (so please try not to resist because you’re afraid it will do that).  Rather because it will offer you a perspective on why your child is drawn to these games that casts him or her in a much more favorable light than the video-games-are-bad rhetoric allows.

And even if you don’t know such a child, McGonigal’s insights on work, happiness, social interaction, and the way we solve and don’t solve large-scale problems make it worth the read as well.

Here’s a passage from early in the book:

“When we’re in a concentrated state of optimistic engagement, it suddenly becomes biologically more possible for us to think positive thoughts, to make social connections, and to build personal strengths.  We are actively conditioning our minds and bodies to be happier. 

If only hard work in the real world had the same effect.  In our real lives, hard work is too often something we do because have to do it – to make a living, to get ahead, to meet someone else’s expectations, or simply because someone else gave us a job to do.  We resent that kind of work.  It stresses us out.  It takes time away from our friends and family.  It comes with too much criticism.  We’re afraid of failing.  We often don’t get to see the direct impact of our efforts, so we rarely feel satisfied. 

Or, worse, our real-world work isn’t hard enough.  We’re bored out of our minds.  We feel completely underutilized.  We feel underappreciated.  We are wasting our lives.

When we don’t choose hard work for ourselves, it’s usually not the right work, at the right time, for the right person.  It’s not perfectly customized for our strengths, we’re not in control of the work flow, we don’t have a clear picture of what we’re contributing to, and we never see how it all pays off in the end.  Hard work that someone else requires us to do just doesn’t activate our happiness systems in the same way.  It all too often doesn’t absorb us, doesn’t make us otpimistic, doesn’t invigorate us.

What a boost to global net happiness it would be if we could positively activate the minds and bodies of hundreds of millions of people by offering them better hard work.”

Indeed. Jane McGonigal’s interested in a happier, more productive world.  We mightn’t expect such a commitment expressed in the form of a book about video games, but that’s what she’s done.  It’s quite something.

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…

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.

A New Book about Play!

Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, by Stuart Brown, M.D., and Christopher Vaughan.

I haven’t read it yet, but it came out this week and it’s next up on my list. I can’t wait – what an amazing subtitle! Amazon has an excerpt posted. More soon…