How Play Can Make or Break our Kids’ Futures

In your last job interview, were you asked, “How did you play as a child?” Engineers entering Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory are. Why?

As Caltech was seeking to fill the gaps left by retiring aerospace engineers responsible for space shuttles, robots, and so much more, they found the new engineers “were often missing something. They were not very good at certain types of problem solving that are critical to the job” (quote from Brown, 2009)

Education Can’t Fix this Gap

Not only for this profession, but for many others in which problem solving is critical, the newer generations are often not up to the task. In a world in which a college degree, and often advanced degrees are standard for many positions now, what have Caltech and others found to be the solution to this problem?


As a child, those that played with their hands are much better with problem solving as adults. Caltech’s research found that “…in their youth, their older, problem-solving employees had taken apart clocks to see how they worked, or make soapbox derby racers, or built hi-fi stereos, or fixed appliances. The young engineering school graduates who had also done these things, who had played with their hands, were adept at the kinds of problem solving the management sought. Those who hadn’t, generally were not. From that point on, JPL made questions about applicants’ youthful projects and play a standard part of job interviews.”

If how kids play is so important that it might impact the kinds of jobs they can get as adults, then- What is it?

What is Play?

At the Shem Homeschool Convention 2017, Alice Rhinehardt from Rhino Ministries defined it as  “Something done for its own sake that is self motivating and doesn’t have to offer a reward. It is voluntary. Play takes us away and creates a time warp and a diminished consciousness of self.”


Big Names in Favor of Play- Say “Aye!”

  • Einstein:”Play is the highest form of research”
  • Plato: “Do not… keep children to their studies by compulsion but by play.”
  • Fred Rogers “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.”
  • Kay Redfield Jamison (Contemporary American professor of psychiatry) “Children need the freedom and time to play. Play is not a luxury. Play is a necessity.”
  • Carl Jung “The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.”
  • Maria Montessori “Play is the work of the child.”

  • George Bernard Shaw “We don’t stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing”

How are schools addressing the need for play and free, non-dictated time for kids to do things with their hands?

Bye Bye Recess?

It’s looks like they are having trouble balancing priorities. Scholastic is saying recess makes kids smarter, but: With the institution of Common Core, we’ve seen schools across the nation cutting the arts, discontinuing naps, and foregoing recess. Students just need more time to cram to be prepared to do better at their testing. Yet, this might not be the solution

Not Necessarily Better

Where I live in Springfield, MO, we have a program called Wolf for 46 of the 5th graders (interested students are chosen by a lottery from all schools) that throws out 46% of the content and bases their curriculum around field trips. It is inquiry-based (the style of English teaching I’ve found most effective in my 15 years of Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, TESOL) and gets kids outside, going canoeing, doing things with their hands and less in the books.

Now, those throwing out recess and the arts would sag their heads and expect testing scores to plummet for this group. According to Jay Barber, the Education Consultant for the Missouri Department of Conservation in my area, this group continues to out-perform all the other 5th grade classes in our city.


Homeschool Take-Aways

For those of you that home-school, you have a unique opportunity to make play a vital part of schooling. I hope you’ve been getting this right, because I certainly haven’t.

As I absorbed valuable truths from some recent homeschool conventions about the value play and problem-solving-specific play for kids, my son’s “Can I just play now?” from recent weeks of our school echoed in my mind.

In an effort to ensure he can read and add, I was having him do our “formal” phonics, reading, math, etc right in a row with few breaks. Now, we would do it on the floor, on the whiteboard, all around the house- not just at the table, based on advice from successful homeschool parents whose kids are raised. But- play was what we did after school was done.

Play is Part of School

We’ve had a really good conversation recently about how play is an important part of school. And we’ve had a ton of fun saving the kingdom, hiding out in our tent (made of blankets), crawling around like kitties, and working on taking apart our air purifier to see what it is like inside. The big difference for us is that I want my boys to know play is part of school not what we do after it’s over.

I’m also looking into problem-solving kinds of games to do with the kids as part of school, between other subjects. I was really encouraged by a presentation by Timberdoodle about how to do this. I don’t get any kickbacks from them by listing this, but they’ve got a lot of great ideas on their website I especially like the games they have listed.

Play is Just for Kids, Right?

Now, you might be thinking- at what age are we done with this? Ha! Trick question, right? Problem solving kinds of activities, games, and fun shouldn’t decrease, but only develop with age. Middle Schoolers don’t have recess, but I had something called Odyssey of the Mind where we solved some crazy problem or made some invention and then developed a play around it we performed, and man, that was so fun in middle school!

Surely by High School, you’re done, though, right? Think about it- High Schoolers have an incredible capacity for creating and solving. They’ve got to have an outlet for that! And us as adults?

Adults Need Play, too!

If you are struggling in a relationship with someone or having marriage difficulties, maybe it is time to just relax and play together. Find a fun event and go to it, pull out a board game or deck of cards, head out for a hike and explore together.

On a personal level, find something you enjoy and do it. Let your kids see from experience that you are loving learning guitar, you are having fun figuring out how to build cabinets, you rest when you read, and you get a kick out of biking with them.

It might just change the way they play- for life!

What are some ways you or your kids enjoy play?

Please share in the comments. We’d all love more ideas!


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