20 February 2022 -- The Critical Necessity of Play

We are now five weeks into the spring semester, and I recently asked my students how things were going, how they would describe their current mental/emotional landscape. One student offered, “Oh, the grind. We’re into the grind. The novelty of new courses and the new semester is over, the fun part is behind us, and from here on out it’s just work – work, grades, stress, and exhaustion.”  Everyone else in class readily agreed, as if this was a universal and obvious truth, and it broke my heart. There is no pleasure, no joy, no wonder, no curiosity – just work, grades, stress, and exhaustion – and that’s just the way it is.  

But that’s not how it was for me. I enjoyed the hell out of my undergraduate education. To be clear, I was a mediocre student at a mediocre university – The State University of New York at Stony Brook. I would not have qualified for honors at Virginia Tech (I did not have a 3.6 GPA) until I was a second-semester senior. My transcript has plenty of B’s on it, and not a few W’s, meaning I simply withdrew from classes I didn’t like or was doing poorly in, no matter how far into the semester that realization occurred. I bounced from Dean’s List to Academic Probation, back and forth, semester after semester. But as I look back at my time at Stony Brook, the overwhelming feelings I have are ones of joy, happiness, pleasure in learning. I loved the classes I stayed in, and after that, I loved my graduate studies, too. Simply put, I loved learning, and I still do. Universities talk a good game these days about how important it is to help students become “lifelong learners,” but we can’t really mean it, not with our current learning conditions.  

I recognize that the economics of higher education have changed disastrously in one generation. I was an in-state student at Stony Brook, and I lived at home, commuting 45 minutes each way and working 30+ hours a week at the Sizzler steakhouse. As a result, my 5 years of undergraduate education cost my parents a total of $6000 ($1200 a year) -- or $20,500 ($4100 a year) in 2022 dollars, adjusted for inflation. I had earned a $250 per year scholarship for my undergrad studies from the State Board of Regents in New York for having good grades in high school. “What good is $250?” you might ask.  Well, when I was an undergrad, it was 20% of my cost of attendance. The official estimate for in-state, off-campus students at Virginia Tech next year is $31,622, meaning these students will pay $120,000 for their undergraduate studies, which even when adjusted for inflation is 500% more than what I paid.  

Given these obscene costs, it is no wonder that first-year students come to college already deeply concerned about the ROI – their return on investment – which under these conditions can only be understood as their ability to land a lucrative job upon graduation, a trajectory that knows only competition and achievement at any cost, a path they have been on since they started school and we started training them to equate their self-worth with their grades. Honors students, especially, equate high grades and awards with “success,” regardless of the psychological damage or social costs involved. And these costs, I think, are considerable and lifelong.  

My father, as you likely know by this point, was a music teacher. Indeed, he taught middle school band and was – by any measure – very effective at it. I once asked him what the secret was to his success, and he said, “As soon as it stops being fun, the kid is going to put down the instrument. It’s just too hard otherwise.”  Fun, pleasure, play, happiness, joy, then, are not frivolous, not silly, not superficial, not a distraction to serious learning: they are absolutely critical for serious, continued learning.    

But where is that play, that joy, in current undergraduate studies?  I make it a point to ask the following question of every student foolish enough to engage me: “What do you do for fun?”  Some of them literally tilt their heads to one side, the way my dogs do when they hear strange sounds, as if this question of fun is a totally alien, baffling suggestion. The answers I usually get have to do with the number of clubs or student organizations they have leadership positions in, or the various community service projects they engage in, both of which ultimately serve their ROI, serve the purpose of making them highly saleable widgets upon graduation. “No, no,” I say, “What do you do for fun?”  This question leaves most of them flat-footed and speechless. Ironically, I end up making it an assignment: “The next time I see you, I want you to tell me something you have done for fun.”  

Fun, pleasure, happiness, joy, play may seem incidental or even a distraction in American schooling, which has its roots in Puritan asceticism, of course. Think here of the church pews which became the models for our student desks, for instance. Our education is not supposed to be pleasurable, to be enjoyable, to be fun. If it is pleasurable, the thinking goes, then we are probably doing it wrong.  

But pleasure and play are critically important for both our individual and collective well-being, perhaps more now than ever before. It is widely recognized that we, as a species, are going to need to become something bigger, something more, more creative, more inventive, more innovative than we have ever been if we are going to survive, if we are ever going to deal effectively with the network of intricately connected global crises and “wicked problems” we face, including climate change, food and water security, overpopulation, healthcare and public health crises, displaced populations and refugees, renewable energy production, poverty and wealth disparity, racial and gender discrimination, radicalism and terrorism, and the like.   

But you cannot create, invent, or innovate if you have forgotten how to play. Indeed, to innovate you have to be very good at playing – playing with theories, playing with ideas, playing with words, numbers, colors, and sounds, playing with perspectives, playing with materials, playing with processes, and playing with others. Play, then, is not frivolous, not silly, not some superficial nicety: it is critical to our survival as a species.     

Even so, educators at every level are struggling to understand why so many students are so very disengaged at the moment.  While the pandemic and lockdowns and Zoom-death surely have a lot to do with it, the problem began long before COVID appeared. Every 3rd grader is a poet or a rapper, yet by the time they come to college almost every one of them hates writing. Something awful happens to students when fun, joy, happiness, and play are lost from their education, when it’s nothing but work, grades, stress, and exhaustion. 4.5 million Americans quit their jobs in November. Something awful happens to all of us when it’s nothing but work, grades, stress, and exhaustion.  

We have forgotten how to play, and we have leeched the pleasure out of our students’ education. There will be very few lifelong learners coming out of a system that constructs learning as nothing but work, grades, stress, and exhaustion. And our survival as a species is imperiled as a result.   

So what can we do?  We can insist on the critical necessity of play in our lives. We can pick up our pens and pencils, pick up our guitars, our paint brushes, our clay, pick up our cameras, get up on stages, sit down at our pianos, drawing tables, and looms, put on our dancing shoes, make colossal messes in our kitchens, get dirty in our gardens, and encourage our colleagues, our friends, and our children to do the same. We can reclaim the power of joy, happiness, pleasure, and play in our daily lives, model that for others, support every effort in this direction, however simple or halting. We will save lives, ours included, and we might just save the planet in the process.  

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