From Playful Childhoods to Productive, Happy Adulthoods: Connecting the Dots

I want my children to have playful childhoods. When they grow up, I want them to be “doers” and have happy, productive adulthoods.

One might argue that my wishes are contradictory, that “playing” and “doing” are opposites.

After all, play is free and spontaneous. It’s whimsical and carefree. Doing, on the other hand, sounds like Type-A, goal-directed stuff. Work. Stress. Drudgery. Ugh…

Well, I disagree with this point of view. I strongly believe that childhood play can form the foundation for a productive, happy adulthood. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be a play advocate for my kids.

Yes, we absolutely cherish every moment of our children’s childhoods, but we would be lousy parents if we didn’t think about their futures as well. If our kids grow up to be totally whimsical and carefree adults, with no purpose in their lives beyond immediate enjoyment for themselves, that’s a problem.

We want our children to grow up to be productive, happy adults. We want them to have a burning passion to do something that makes the world a better place, and we want them to have the tools to make this happen.

I very deeply believe that the best way to get there is not by giving our kids the standard 21st Century childhood – highly adult controlled, structured, and stressful. A playful childhood does lay the best foundation for a happy, productive adulthood because it fosters independent thinking and a profound sense of intrinsic motivation.

However, parents shouldn’t congratulate themselves and fade to the background once they see their young children playing a vigorous, self-organized game of hide-and-seek. On the contrary, they still have a lot of work to do to help their playful children connect the dots to a productive adulthood.

My writing about facilitating “doing” for kids is an attempt to connect these dots. As Allison Gopnik eloquently writes in The Philosophical Baby, children are trial and error machines. From the earliest age, they are consummate “doers” as they play. However, their motivation is rather egocentric – they apply their doing toward solving their own little problems, not changing the world.

To get to the point where they have the potential of changing the world, they need to gain a healthy dose of chutzpah (Yiddish for audacity, courage), become deeply competent at something, and find a sense of purpose in their lives to guide their doing.

So, they should continue to stay in touch with their childlike sense of doing as they acquire chutzpah, competence, and purpose.

I admire the teachings of Maria Montessori in drawing a connection between play and work, much as I admire the Reggio emphasis on child-directed, play-inspired projects. In these and other progressive education approaches, we find attempts to connect children’s play to a productive adulthood. Unfortunately, these approaches have been confined largely to school, and within school, to the earliest years – preschool, and perhaps kindergarten.

On the other hand, I believe that all of childhood – all the years, and all hours, not just school hours – should be focused on connecting children’s play to a productive adulthood.

What do you think? Do you see a connection between playful childhoods and productive, “change-the-world” adulthoods?

How do you think we can help kids connect the dots?

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