The Butterfly Wings of Play and Learning

Originally published on the Huffington Post on April 15th.

When launching Play Futures at the LEGO Idea Conference, Carla Rinaldi, President of the Reggio Children’s Foundation, explained the butterfly logo she wore on her tee-shirt. Play and learning, she shared, are like the two wings of a butterfly, interconnected and interdependent. This is true not just for children, but also for adults.

I like to think of myself as a lifelong learner, but I don’t feel like I play much. I certainly have fun, but engaging in actual play is a different story. The night before Professor Rinaldi spoke, I sat across from another conference guest who said that he felt that most adults are broken children - people who have lost the ability to play and to create. The conference ended with a video turning children’s comments on adults’ woeful playing abilities in a rock ballad, which you can find here about minute 43. It was funny, thought provoking, and accurate.

Where, I wondered, does this resistance to play come from? What message does it send to our children? And, how does it affect our ability to learn and to solve problems? For these big questions, I turned to the experts - my own children and moms in their natural habitat (Facebook groups).

Apparently, my children do think I play...but not enough. I play Uno, they explained. And I get to play with robots at work. They advised me to “play hookie” more often and to make sure I make some time to play everyday. They also called me out for using my phone a lot but not having any good games on it.

When I posted the questions above to social media, the most common response I received was, “What do you mean by play?”

Followed by, “I’m afraid to ask.”

While the rest of the responses were more varied, the clear enemy was work.

5 year old: You and daddy sometimes play, but mostly you work...so you don’t get fired and you have money.

6 year old: You play a little, but not much. Because you have to work. When you come home from work, you should make us dinner and then play.

10 year old: You don’t really play. The first reason is that as you get older, you get more work and, if you don’t do it, you don’t get money and your life would be more difficult. The second reason is that, as you mature, it seems like playing just isn’t fun for you anymore.

Aside from water parks and roller coasters, which many children noticed their parents still enjoy, adulthood looks a little bleak. Our kids think we work a lot and they are right. They also seem to think our work is pretty joyless and that we’re one bad day away from not being able to put food on the table.

And, despite the fact that I love my work and have a lot of fun doing it, I have definitely contributed to this mindset. Like many other parents, I have had this conversation on more than a few occasions:

Child: Can you play with me?

Me (banging away on the computer): I really can’t. I have to send this email and have five more things to do before making dinner.

Child: Please....

Me: I’d love to, but I can’t.

Child: Please...

Me (now feeling guilty): Look, I have to work...so that we can do things like go to the water park this weekend. I’ll play with you after dinner.

Yet, playing more at home and in the workplace would help us work together with empathy, optimism, and an open mind. According to Dr. Jack Shonkoff, Director of the Center for the Developing Child, the most successful adults maintain the ability to play. Play allows us to explore and tackle challenges while building foundational skills such as communication and teamwork.

Playing requires being fully present in the moment. So does learning. And so does problem solving. For all of the yoga, meditation, and more we are being prescribed to navigate our adult worlds, maybe we should join our children in their world...without our phones...for a while.