The news broke recently just before dinnertime. Steve Jobs was resigning as CEO of Apple. Graphic artists, photographers, writers, artists, Mac-junkies, “computer nerds”, and lovers of beauty everywhere bowed their heads and sighed. The great Master of Design (form AND function) was stepping down.
But, I’m not really here to talk about Steve. I was actually thinking about his Mom. Where would we be today if Mrs. Jobs had wanted to keep her garage clean? When her Steve and little Stevie Wozniak wanted a place to play with their wires and stuff, what if she had said, “No! You’ll make a mess! Your father just cleaned out the garage.” It makes me shudder to think about it.
Mrs. Jobs should be an example for today’s parents. She should be lauded and her profile should be put on the quarter. An elementary school - or two or three – should be named after her. Let me explain.
These days our children are suffering from more deficit issues than just “nature deficit disorder” (the term, referencing the danger of children spending all of their time indoors away from nature, was coined by Rich Louv in his best-selling book, The Last Child in the Woods). Our children are calcifying inside from their lack of creative, exploratory play. All too often this stems directly from the fact that creative, exploratory play can be messy, time-consuming, inconvenient, and, messy (it bares repeating).
When my son was little he was praised for getting dirty. It seemed to me that the dirtier he got the better. I wasn’t sure what it was that was going to be better, but it was easy to see that with each added level of grunge the happier and more alive he grew. His eyes would twinkle. Something wonderful and electric was happening inside that beautiful head of his. Certainly anything that brings on “eye twinkle” has to be good for a child’s development.
These days, most parents do not understand just how important good quality play is. They look confused when told that children need ample free time so they can explore all the different types of play and discover themselves along the way. And, yes, that means they need time that is completely unstructured – no lessons, no advancement classes, no organized anything. They think unstructured time for their kids tells the world they are bad parents when the exact opposite is true.
When I talk to some adults about letting kids get dirty their reactions are telling. When describing the great value of sand play to them (and, gasp!, sand and water play), they hem, haw and squirm as they explain that they can’t have the grains getting in their car or classroom.
So, here’s the scoop: play (and a lot of it and whatever kind your child is drawn to) is critical to the healthy development of a child. I’m not talking about organized sports here. I’m talking about free play. Free, as in, you-can-do-(pretty much)-whatever-you-want play. I’m talking about play where a child can dig in the dirt or the sand, or climb a tree play, or pretend to be a fairy princess play. It’s not the dirt itself that I laud, it’s the freedom given to a child to explore and risk a little.
Somebody has done today’s parents a huge disservice. Is it our judgment-prone culture that has them quaking in fear over being deemed “A BAD PARENT”? Why does everyone all of a sudden think that kids have to be little robots of perfection and cleanliness to be “good kids”, or that a cut or scrape is the end of the world? (I think most kids look at their scars, bumps and bruises as badges of courage. I remember being very, very proud to have my arm in a cast at eight years of age.)
Think about it. Say a couple of children are goofing off in the backyard and find a big stack of sticks and other “loose parts”. They start building a fort. What’s really happening here? They are learning to communicate with each other, to cooperate and organize. They are learning to see something in their minds and then figuring out a way to make it happen. They are learning about math, seeing things in 3D, physics, design and negotiation. They are moving and getting exercise. They are improving manual dexterity.
They are even learning about failure, resilience, and determination. A favorite story that I often share is about one of Atlanta’s top architects who shall remain nameless here just in case he doesn’t think the story is as brilliant as I do. Said-architect built a treehouse when he was a little boy. It fell down. But, he went on to become an amazing architect. That tells me a lot about the value of play and what can be learned from it.
Dr. Kathyrn Hirsh-Pacek is author of Einstein Never Used Flash Cards: How children really learn and why they need to play more and memorize less. She says, “Children graduating today will have roughly 10 jobs in their lifetime - 8 of which have yet to be invented. Pity the poor photographer who never learned digital. Our children really are being trained in schools better suited for the industrial age than the knowledge age and our focus on fill in the blank, one-right-answer tests is not really teaching them to think flexibly or creatively.”
Parents need to follow Mrs. Jobs’ lead. Give our children the time, place and tools to play freely. Make playgrounds more interesting. Make sure your school not only says they have recess, but that they actually let the kids out to play. (P.E. is an entirely different animal – don’t confuse the two. And, don’t let P.E. steal the unstructured play that is critical to a child doing well in school, even if it is in the name of Anti-Obesity. Both are vital.)
And, please, don’t panic when your child says he or she is bored. Seriously, don’t panic. You can do this. Their boredom is not a judgment on you (although they will act like it is). Letting children work their way through boredom to the other side can lead them to stunningly, magnificent, powerful, wonderful places - place that kids today seldom, if ever, go.
If we start to understand the power of play we will end up with more boys and girls with minds like Mrs. Jobs’ Steve. Creativity, the cornerstone of the age to come, will not be so rare.
So, try to be a little more Mrs. Jobs-like. She gave her boy a safe place to play and then left him alone to see what he came up with. And, oh, how the things he came up with changed the world.