Every day when the staff of Greater Good arrives at work, we’re joined by a procession of three- and four-year-old kids. Our offices are located within UC Berkeley’s esteemed Child Study Center, and half of the single-floor building houses two big preschool classrooms; the other half contains researchers’ labs and other grown-ups’ offices. It’s not unusual for us to glance up from our computer monitors and see kids leaping into the sandbox or building with blocks or pretending to be giraffes.
And any of these activities could be taking place at just about any time of the day: The entire Child Study Center curriculum centers on play—child-led, multifarious, creative play. For 80 years, the school has used play as a vehicle to teach kids lessons about art, academics, relationships, and their own individuality.
These kids are lucky. As noted child psychologist David Elkind argues in his essay in this issue of Greater Good, play has lost its currency among many educators, parents, and policy makers these days. Schools across the country have cut recess and physical education, while placing more emphasis on testing and the rigid academic structure that goes with it.
In this issue of Greater Good, we explore what we lose when we stop playing. But we also ask how children and adults can find new ways to play in today’s world.
For years, scientific research has shown that play is essential to the health and well-being of kids, adults, and other kinds of creatures. Biologist Lee Alan Dugatkin and neuroscientist Sarina Rodrigues even highlight the evolutionary significance of play, explaining how it helps teach principles of fairness, cooperation, and survival across the animal kingdom.
But while play is rooted in biology, how we play also reveals a great deal about our society—our anxieties, values, and goals.
In her essay, Greater Good book review editor (and mother of two) Jill Suttie explores why today’s parents feel compelled to control their children’s play and make it productive: They are afraid of seeing their kids fail in our ultra-competitive society. As historian Howard Chudacoff makes clear in his piece, this is nothing new. Throughout American history, adults have tried to shape children’s play for their own purposes. But kids have always battled back by creating their own special toys, games, rituals, and spaces for play.
Today, of course, video games are the realm of play most mystifying and scary to many parents. But as Jeremy Adam Smith reveals in his article, new research challenges many of theses fears, while also suggesting that parents and teachers should set new limits for kids.
And in their fascinating (and thoroughly entertaining) essay, Marjorie Taylor and Alison B. Shawber shed light on another world of play that can bewilder parents: imaginary friends. They show how this kind of play, which can seem trivial or even bizarre, actually helps kids develop essential skills of morality, empathy, and creativity.
Though these essays cover many kinds of play, they all celebrate the idea of play as a free-form, liberating experience, not as a structured activity. To be honest, as much as we love our work at Greater Good, seeing the kids outside our offices always makes us jealous—and makes us wonder how to make our grown-up lives more playful. As Karen Solomon shows in her concluding essay, play isn’t just for kids: We can all benefit from having more fun.