All Work and No Play – When did Americans stop having fun?

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What is your reason for skipping out on fun—on being playful, in the moment, doing something just because?

…As a group, Americans—especially East Coast Americans—don’t pencil in as much time as they’d like for plain-old play.

…”I’m not sure we’ve ever known how important play is,” says Susan Oliver, executive director of Playing for Keeps, a child advocacy group focused on the significant role of play.

…A few decades’ worth of studies of both children and adults show the benefits of freely chosen play and games, and the costs of not including at least a little playfulness in our lives.

…For every “all work and no play makes Jack a very dull boy,” we had an “idle hands are the devil’s tools.”

…In the nineteenth century, Americans passed laws setting maximum work hours, partly in reaction to the seventy-two-hour week people were working in New England textile mills.   And in the mandatory downtime before electricity lit up the night, families entertained themselves with stories, games, and music, as well as getting enough sleep.   Play was allowed for children, until they could be taught better, and there was talk of joy in daily work and the occasional holiday.   But in practice, and in traditions of thought passed from parent to child, generation after generation, play was just a frilly accessory of life. 

Both parents need to work because they need that second car, and need the house with a separate room for everybody, and need those special lessons for the kids, and need that five-hundred-channel satellite dish, the Xbox, the latest PC.

…The real seams started showing in the 1990s, when technology reached the point when regular people (not doctors, not emergency workers) could be expected to be working at any moment of the day.   Now, some people we know sleep not only with their cell phones at their bedsides but also with their BlackBerry e-mail devices under their pillows.   And they try to schedule playtime into their calendar, maybe riding bikes, but first they have to get to the sports store and buy all the latest gear or they won’t be able to compete and “win.”

And while all this speed-of-light living has made many of us cranky and sad, it seemed wrong to complain—and unthinkable to stop.   We’d been taught that more work is better, and now that we could work more—all our waking hours, if need be—of course that is what we should do.

The pressure was cranked up after the attacks of 9/11, when President Bush told us to work even harder, so we could afford to buy more, keep the economy strong, and make sure terror didn’t win.   At this point, stopping for a moment to play, or just to unwind, might get one classified unpatriotic.

…But, it seemed, the rest of us were waiting for the data, and until anyone told us different, we’d follow the path our forefathers trod.

…French employees, when they work, are very efficient—so much so that even though they spend only the government-set thirty-five hours a week at their jobs and take up to eight weeks vacation and holidays each year, their yearly per-employee productivity is fifth-best in the world, according to the ILO.   American yearly per-employee productivity is first, but American workers reach that number by working 30% more hours than their French counterparts.

Not only that, but play just may be the secret to thriving in the new information economy.   As the U.S. economy tilts more to the service and information sectors, creativity and problem-solving (areas that are developed chiefly through play and playfulness) will be more in demand.

…The scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs who come up with the biggest breakthroughs are the ones who can break out of the mold of same-thinking that the rest of their peers are in.   In many cases, they nurture their childlike minds, staying playful and open-minded when others might bow down to cynicism, their “inner voice of reason,” or a fear of failure.

…Other research indicates that through “authentic play,” which is a state of mind where the mere act of playing and playfulness gives more pleasure than any goal associated with it, children learn and adults improve flexibility and adaptability, as well as trust, empathy, sociability, and intimacy.

“Play is poorly understood and underused as a positive force in the world,” says Brown, a doctor whose studies included reviewing the lives of death-row inmates in Texas.   He found that these troubled men had almost no playtime in their childhoods, not to mention their current lives, a state he termed “play deprivation.”

…A sign they are starting to recover is the return of that gleam of playfulness in their eyes, and then actual play.

…Also unlike their parents, today’s parents are more fearful for their children, both in terms of playground and neighborhood security and future economic success.   It feels unsafe to let them out loose to play, it feels unwise to skip any of the “enrichment activities” we can cram into their days.   So the amount of time children spend on unstructured activities, exploring, and learning important skills such as how to direct their own time and to entertain themselves, dropped by half in the past twenty years, reports child psychiatrist Dr. …  Whose fault is it when a 12 year old complains he can’t think of anything to do?

One of the best predictors for school success is the ability to play with others, including imagining oneself in the other’s shoes to develop empathy and understanding. …  Play also helps children master other school-necessary skills, including self-regulation, self-satisfaction, and the ability to keep oneself entertained while waiting for others to finish their schoolwork.

…We are wanting kids to sit down and write their names at 3 and do rote tasks that are extremely boring at a young age.”

…Play and games foster the development of community by helping players discover how to build mutual trust, cooperation, and common goal setting, as well as building optimism and the power of perseverance, Brown says.   Play, including trying on different roles, also has a large part in shaping a person’s inner vision of herself or himself as well as the model of the world she or he uses to navigate through life.

…Mouths turned down, arms crossed, they say such things as, “I’m very busy” and “not now,” says Bernie DeKoven, author of The Well-Played Game.   DeKoven theorizes that as they grow, kids just get better and better at playing adults until they forget that it’s only play.   They forget they can take off the “adult” mask and just be themselves from time to time—or for good.

“I don’t think it is so much that the world takes away our childhood. …  But too many of us just don’t give ourselves permission, or we set rigid boundaries on what is allowable fun and where we are allowed to have it.   But the biggest lie we tell ourselves is that we can—we should—wait to have fun until we retire.

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