This piece was originally published on LinkedIn on September 12, 2018
I was thrilled to see Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff’s New York Times Opinion piece, How to Play Our Way to a Better Democracy, which made the case that kids’ access to play is foundational for a functioning democracy. The authors hinted at this, but I think it is worth repeating Stuart Brown’s insight that it seems likely that play has survived evolution, despite being a risky activity, precisely because of its importance in the development of healthy communities.
Reading the piece, however, I was struck by the challenge of making this insight a reality in the daily lives of children. The limitations on access to play go beyond hyper-concerned helicopter parents and testing at schools, to include real concerns around neighborhood safety faced by more low income parents and the realities of living in a litigious society if you are a school administrator.
How, then, do we create an environment that still enables children to learn from the risks of play so that they can handle challenges and failures, and develop the skills of self-regulation, conflict resolution and collaboration?
As the founder of Playworks, I’ve long known and admired Professor Gray’s work and the importance of free play. Playworks, a national nonprofit which this year will support safe and healthy play for 1.25 million kids in 2,500 schools across the country, has been criticized for grown-up intervention at recess, and Peter expressed skepticism when he initially heard about our program. But when we had Peter out to see the program in action, he told me that he was impressed by what he saw. Adults were playing alongside students at recess in a way that did not minimize student leadership and ownership of the activities at recess. Peter is still a bigger fan of unsupervised play, but he saw in our efforts an opportunity for kids to learn the strategies that enable free play to thrive in a school setting.
Much as the older kids in the neighborhood normed the use of rock-paper-scissors and trading players to even out teams when I was a child, Playworks coaches give the students a baseline level of safety in which they can own their playtime, increasing the likelihood that they will get to experience teamwork, compromise and a respect for the rules – ideal lessons for them as they grow up.
People need meaning, the opportunity for mastery, and community to thrive. Creating opportunities for people to contribute, and to find their best selves is some of the most important work we can do.