Thursday, March 5, 2015

More Than Fun and Cute


Engineering and play are more alike than we might think. Both have a significant PR problem. When I recently wrote about engineering and the confusion of many about what it is, I was struck by a similar confusion related to play. We assume we know what engineering is and what play is and often make snap judgments about them. Engineering is train operators, not problem solving and design. Play is fun; children are cute when they play.

Play’s PR problem comes through clearly in a question I was asked at InterActivity 2014, “How can we talk about the value of play without mentioning play?” I am not sure I was able to conceal my utter disbelief at this question posed at a conference for children’s museums that have a strong, if not fundamental, grounding in the value of play. More surprising, this was not the first time I’d heard something like this. A few years ago, a children’s museum executive director told me her board had instructed her not to educate funders and policy makers about play. I still wonder about that knowing that play was one of five words in her museum’s mission statement.

The message is clear. Play’s OK until it’s time to get serious, deal with what’s important, and talk with others who may not value it. And when we do own up to play, we are inclined to emphasize the fun. This is hardly an endorsement of what the American Academy of Pediatrics considers critical to the optimal development of all children. What does this say about play, and for that matter, about babies and children–including their play, drawings, language, questions, and movements? What does it say about our courage and commitment?

Scholars have looked seriously at play over the last century and recent research in neuroscience has amply demonstrated the rapid brain growth that occurs during the early years. Nevertheless we persist in not taking young children or their play seriously.

Cute, So Cute, Insanely Cute
When I scroll through Facebook, I love seeing photos of children I know or the children I know fill the lives of friends, family, colleagues, and neighbors. Mason has fallen asleep among his toys; Henry’s has just discovered the joy of licking the frosting off the big wooden spoon. Sara’s at the starting line for a ski race. Clara’s getting a soft wet kiss from Coco. And 3-year old Sadie is posing proudly in a very large Girl Scout badge sash ready to sell cookies with big sister Lucy. Invariably, at least one comment from friends (and family) is “cute.” There is also “fun,” “darling,” “angelic,” “so cute,” and recently, “insanely cute.”

“Cute” not only does not capture what is present, but also sorely underestimates the rich range of durable experiences and the enormous potential they are activating. How could one word–and the same word used again and again–cover so many children doing so many different things as well as describe piñata cookies or a brightly frosted cupcake caterpillar?

More Than Fun
Imagine if we labeled every painting in an art museum beautiful or every sculpture provocative. Using the same few words to sum up something erases the need to think more about what else is present. Limited words restrict what we see and notice and how we might respond and engage. The moments we see as simple and sweet on those Facebook page photos are filled with children making connections, feeling confident, meeting a challenge, discovering a new perspective, or delighting in a sense of agency.

While we often praise individuality, we all but ignore the individual present before us with a one-word caption of what’s going on. We gloss over what is specific, remarkable, and worth noting, in effect, diminishing the child’s capabilities and thinking–contributions the world needs. Watching a child’s play, we don’t take time and think about or imagine where the story of a runaway frog came from, how the idea of a pet palace grew, or what the child might be thinking about that space rocket.

At the gym, I watch a 2-1/2 year old walk backwards down a long hallway, a little wobbly but delighted. (Cute, right?) This seems to be an exploration of a new way of moving, feeling movement, and noticing how surroundings change as he moves. Rather than walking towards the door, he’s walking away from it; does he notice it is getting smaller? Most likely, more–much more–of life-long significance is occurring in a child’s everyday moments and during play captured in images of children at play in museums, in the library, at family gatherings, at a holiday. Seeing children crouch under a bush, notice how chalk crumbles, meet a cardboard challenge, create duct tape armor, or try to balance a plate on one hand communicates volumes about that child’s curiosity, interests, control, agency, capabilities, and sense of accomplishment. 

Use Your Words
We might each revisit a memory or a snapshot of a cherished moment from our childhood. Examine the image closely. Yes, there’s a crooked smile, an untamed cowlick, the shirt worn backwards, and an apple bulging from the pants pocket. As the beaming child, the spelling bee winner, would cute reveal the sense of accomplishment you felt or the relief still remembered? Others might have seen this moment as funny or sweet. But for you it was a discovery about words, the triumph of persistence, and pride in winning for your school.    

This is not a plea to banish cute or fun. Play is fun and more; children are cute and far more than cute. 
Rather, it is an invitation to look, wonder, and reflect on what is happening as five-year old Sonja gives a long explanation of how we smell things and Delroy learns to use a needle and thread sitting next to his grandmother. Surely, when Cyrus and Harper sing and dance their 90 year old great grandfather’s favorite song, it is more than fun and cute.

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