As parents and as a society, we are concerned about making sure that our children are prepared to compete in the new global economy. I get that. We all want our children to find success and happiness. And nobody wants their 40 year old offspring still living in the basement!
But here’s what doesn’t make sense to me. The way that we have responded to this challenge has been to push kids away from play and unstructured free time into academically focused pre-schools, supplemental tutoring programs like Kumon, and absurdly early organized sports teams. We are building our child’s college application resume from the time he can toddle across the floor. This push-down of academics and parent-directed sports and activities may contribute to a child’s earlier understanding of basic reading and math fundamentals and an ability to follow directions. But there’s no evidence that this early skill development provides any academic advantage over time. And we are sacrificing creativity and emotional resilience, two important traits learned best through play, traits that the research clearly shows are hugely important to a child’s future success.
Let’s think about what it means to be competitive in our modern economy. We are no longer a newly industrialized nation looking for competent factory workers who can read and follow instructions, stay focused, and perform the same task multiple times per day. We now have machines that can perform much of these functions. What is building our economy now is entrepreneurism and innovation. And for that we need people with the imagination to see the problems of the future and then solve them, people who are willing to take risks, people who are willing to fail and learn from these failures, and people who are able to function as part of a team.
There’s a great new book out called Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer. All parents should read this book because it gives insight into the science behind creativity and how businesses are, knowingly or unknowingly, incorporating that science into their work cultures. This is why at 3M, the company that invented masking tape and currently sells more than 55,000 different products, employees are encouraged to take a walk, daydream, or play a game of pinball, as breaks in their day. Similarly, if you walk into one of Google’s office buildings, you’ll be greeted with scooters, ping-pong and pool tables, and other adult toys. And Google, like 3M, encourages its researchers to spend 15% of their day pursuing a speculative new idea. What may seem to be merely a recruiting tool or frivolous perk is actually highly productive. In fact, Google’s Innovation Time Off program has led directly to the development of Gmail and AdSense as well as an estimated 50% or more of new Google products.
At Pixar, when Steve Jobs oversaw the development of the studio building, he scrapped the initial architectural plan for a cost-effective multi-building design. Instead, he wanted a single immense space with a center atrium where the employees would run into each other and interact. To make sure this happened, Jobs moved the mailboxes, meeting rooms, and cafeteria to the atrium. He decided even that was not sufficient to force the kind of mingling he desired, so he placed the only set of bathrooms in the atrium, thus requiring employees to have to walk all the way to the atrium every time they needed to use the restroom. Jobs wanted an atmosphere of interaction and collaboration. He understood that sometimes the best ideas happen when two people unexpectedly run into each other and start a conversation. Pixar’s culture of creative collaboration has made the animation studio immensely successful.
It’s clear that our country’s most successful and innovative companies understand what the science suggests: that creativity is not the product of sustained and constant concentration, but more typically strikes us when our brains most resemble that of a child at play. So why are we cutting out recess, turning pre-school into kindergarten, and signing our children up for specialized tutoring instead of letting them loose to play? Doesn’t anyone else find it ironic that companies are working to instill creativity in their adult employees, while at the same time we are slowly stripping it from our kids?
If we want our children to succeed – Just Let Them Play!