The Zero-sum Myth for Kids’ Lives

Will happy kids who play a lot like my son Marco do worse in school?  Would he be better off at a piano lesson than playing 'water gun tag?'

Parents who push their kids hard to succeed believe that if they gave their kids more time for “free play,” they would not learn as much or do as well in school. Their logic goes as follows: one more of hour of play is one less hour of studying or of some “enrichment activity.”

Experts who criticize these hard-driving parents like Denise Clark Pope seem to agree that more playtime or downtime will result in lower academic achievement. In her frequent speeches on “stressed out students,” Pope asks parents to reconsider their desire to see their children attend “elite universities.” Her message is inescapable: parents who let their kids play every day are sacrificing some measure of learning or academic achievement, but that’s OK.

I fundamentally disagree with this zero-sum logic. The problem is that it fails to take into account the effect of emotions, which are tightly bound to motivation.The bottom line is that, in general, kids who play are happier, and happier kids will be more “productive” when they turn their attention to academics. By productive, I mean that happy kids will learn more per hour of study than unhappy kids. In other words, they’re “firing on all cylinders,” and are better able to do well at anything they encounter because of their positive attitude.

Unfortunately, I don’t know of research that supports this contention that happier kids are more productive (see this article for a discussion of happiness and academic achievement). However, it’s pretty clear that unhappiness, if it’s extreme enough to result in depression or other emotional illnesses, can be debilitating. Child psychologists claim that far more children are depressed and suicidal today than decades ago.

Even if a hard-studying, activity-laden child isn’t clinically depressed, he or she may well not be “happy,” and may not be very productive in the hours he or she studies or participates in activities.

Of course, all play and no schoolwork will not result in high academic achievement. I’m simply advocating that parents recognize that some amount of regular free play will make their kids happier, and that happiness has a positive effect on academic performance and learning. Besides, well, don’t parents just want their kids to be happy human beings?

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11 Responses to The Zero-sum Myth for Kids’ Lives

  1. If this were true, traditional college prep schools like the one I attended twenty-five years ago would not be set up as they are — with expansive arts, athletic, and community service programs.

    My high school typically had near 100% college attendance (and 100% college acceptance) with many students going to the Ivy League and other elite schools. My combined time in sports, music, art, photography courses and free time exceeded classroom time on many days of the school week. This was assumed to be good for our brains and for our character development.

    Since I left, these programs have only expanded, with the school adding artificial turf, a fitness center, a performing arts center, a much larger art studio, and a bigger dark room.

  2. Amaretto says:

    Hi Mike, thanks for your comment today. You have a wonderful and informative site here, and it’s great to know that others feel that children not going outside to play is more tragic than words could aptly state. I’m sure I’ll be revisiting this subject and when I do I’ll be sure to share some love with Playborhood!

    Stay encouraged in your cause!

  3. Simon Firth says:

    Mike — You say that “happy kids will learn more per hour of study than unhappy kids.” I’m not sure that’s true. Happy kids will learn more about what they are interested in, sure, but what if all they are interested in is playing rock guitar or hacking code or gardening, or high end physics when their school curriculum calls for, say, chemistry, geography and the early history of the republic?

    I think that working joylessly for years can very often result in super-high AP scores and entrance to a highly-ranked college etc. etc.. That’s why it’s the behavior demanded of their children by highly ambitious parents–albeit at huge cost to their children’s psyches.

    But I also think this isn’t a competition you need to be in. Firstly, we can redefine what it means to be a highly achieving — if we see achievement in terms of curiosity retained and creatively employed, or in terms of lessons intelligently learned from failures, then that’s a kind of achievement on which children pushed to never get anything but an A will score low. Interestingly, many colleges are now introducing a ‘what was your greatest failure’ question on their applications to try and enroll more creative/curious students.

    Secondly, what about the fundamental right of children, and adults for that matter, to be happy? Isn’t there an argument to be made that says children simply shouldn’t be slaves to their parents’ academic ambitions for them? Shouldn’t it be, rather, that a child’s happiness comes first? If you have a child who’s made happy by the kind of work that gets them into Harvard, then great. But if your child is inspired to reach his or her highest potential by the kind of educational exploration that results in them finding work as a car mechanic, or musician, or National Park warden, or massage therapist – then shouldn’t we expect parents to recalibrate their academic expectations to let the children do that work, and celebrate them for the excellence they bring to it?

  4. Mike Lanza says:

    Regarding whether kids who are happier are more productive, I’ll just speak for myself. Absolutely, for me, when I’m happy, and when it’s time to study, I focus much better.

    Also, yes, absolutely, happiness should be regarded as a noble goal in and of itself.

  5. Simon Firth says:

    Mike — it’s the idea that happy children are generally more productive in a very particular way that I’m not sure about. I think anyone, children included, produces their best work when happy. But when we use an extremely narrow definition for what constitutes useful productivity (high scores on a very particular range of academic metrics, in this case), then I can see that, while it works for you, for many the correlation between happiness and academic productivity won’t necessarily be there.

    I’d also want to delve a little into how we’re thinking about happiness here. Children are extremely vulnerable to parental and social pressures. If what makes them truly happy is their parents’ approval and if the only way can they see to achieve that approval is to work very long hours at something that brings them no intrinsic pleasure, then you could argue that what they are doing is directly about making them ‘happy.’ It’s a sad state of affairs and doesn’t put them in a state that I’d call ‘true happiness’, but the alternative – lower academic grades and deep parental disapproval – would be worse. You seen that kind of process at work in high school students you’ve interviewed yourself, I think.

    I value academic achievement, but not to the extent of allowing it to justify behavior that leads to depression–which is what Denise Clark Pope et. al. find it often does in our highest high school ‘achievers.’ One solution to this tension, of course, is to make the kind of learning we expect from our children fun.

    By ‘fun’ I don’t mean constantly entertaining, but rather stimulating and constantly enlightening. I think such an atmosphere, which can still involve learning techniques like repetition and high expectations, is possible in the classroom, but it’s very hard to achieve — especially when teachers are presented with the typically-sized set of randomly selected children that they’re given in public school classes.

    In terms of research, I’d be very interested to see anything you can dig up that correlates happiness with academic achievement. A related field where I know there is a substantial body of research looks at intrinsic motivation in children. That connects to the curiosity/love of learning part of the story. Children start life with an intrinsic motivation to learn (no one teaches them to walk or talk, for example). But at some point their intrinsic motivations and what we expect them to learn diverge. From what I know, trying to delay or overcome that divergence is something of an educational Holy Grail — and to a considerable degree what underlies the many experiments in education (charter schools, child-directed learning, home schooling) that are being tried all over the country.

  6. Simon Firth makes great points. Have you read about the Sudbury schools model? In the most extreme implementation, kids who want to fish all day are allowed to do so. Teachers are on stand-by when the child decides to learn how to write stories about the river or discover its ecology or invent fishing tools. Their philosophy seems to be that truly basic skills are just that. Almost any interest will eventually lead a child to need reading and basic mathematics. More advanced development in that interest will probably also lead to “critical thinking” and some more advanced math. There are many professions, occupations, lives that never use some of our other “basics.”

  7. Simon Firth says:

    Thanks for the information about the Sudbury schools, Barbara. I went and took a look at the website of the original Sudbury School and I want one in my neighborhood! Sure, it’s not for all children, but I think that kind of schooling would suit a surprisingly large percentage of children turned off by traditional education — especially in the secondary grades.

    I guess it’s also an institutionalized version of the radical ‘unschooling’ home school movement — and better in many ways because it takes place within an environment that actively nurtures learning (which not all unschooling home situations do, I fear). Sadly, I’m sure it only works with exceptionally well-trained teachers and very low teacher-to-student ratios — an arrangement that something few parents (or school districts) can afford to support.

  8. I don’t have children but have taught and worked in youth development. I’ve always thought I would home school/unschool future children. Then I began to wonder about what I would do if my child turned out to be an extrovert! I agree with your (mild) criticism; it struck me when I found the Sudbury sites that the majority of parents who are attracted to this kind of school are probably highly educated and “smart” themselves.

    I had a Head Start program director for a father, an elementary school teacher for a grandmother, a middle school teacher for a mother, and a high school teacher for an aunt. So, had I spent my days fishing, I would have had plenty of “school” anyway!

  9. Suzanne Miller says:

    From my anecdotal observation of my kids (11, 8, and 4) and their friends, children who spend more time playing and less time in lessons/academics (esp in early childhood) are better problem solvers, are much more creative, and have more effective leadership skills than children with less free time. However, I have also observed that kids who freeplay more are less competitive and tend to achieve less in more measurable skills like computation/grammar/spelling.

    I actually had an interesting discussion about this with a gifted services teacher a few months ago. She says that she gets a lot of kids in the program in first grade that are academic superstars but are not able to handle problem solving/critical thinking exercises at all. She says that they are afraid to even try to answer for fear that they will be wrong and that they are so used to being catered to that they don’t know how to try when something seems hard or doesn’t make sense. From her observation, the kids that fit this description are largely the ones that have been “groomed for greatness” since birth and are pushed and over-scheduled. She says that the true problem solvers and creative thinkers in her class are usually the ones that spend most of their afternoons playing in the woods instead of driving to lessons.

    So…., my preference is to have creative thinkers who can’t spell rather than accurate spellers who can’t think. To be honest though, I do lie awake at night sometimes and wonder if I will find out 10 years from now that my husband and I have done our kids a great disservice. It is very hard not to get sucked up into the “traveling team” philosophy.

  10. Barbara Saunders says:

    Did you see the New Yorker piece about the pathological culture that has developed around valedictorians? Kids have sued their schools because they missed out by “one point” on being valedictorian. Other kids give up on sports and other extracurricular activities because those courses are weighted differently.

    One source remarked that her studies of valedictorians showed a pattern of professional success but of surprisingly few former valedictorians achieving great works of innovation in those professions.

  11. Simon Firth says:

    Yes, it’s crazy. That’s why some school districts — Palo Alto among them — no longer have valedictorians.