The Serious Business of Play

As I worked on the previous post and began to envision a series of articles on imagination, the July-August issue of the Smithsonian Magazine arrived with a piece that fit the theme.  In “Why Play is Serious,” Alison Gopnik, a leading researcher in cognitive development, says play is “a crucial part of what makes all humans so smart.”

Alison Gopnik

Many of us intuitively know that play matters, but Gopnik and her colleagues at UC Berkeley have new theories and research on why it’s so important.

How is it that very young children learn so much so quickly?  Gopnik’s research focuses on pretending, which she calls “counterfactual” thinking.  She gives the example of Einstein wondering what would happen on a train traveling at the speed of light.

Gopnik found that “Children who were better at pretending could reason better about counterfactuals – they were better at thinking about different possibilities.  And thinking about possibilities plays a crucial role in the latest understanding about how children learn.”

Photo by Don Bergquist, licensed by Creative Commons

Ms Gopnik is concerned about policymakers who “try to make preschools more like schools.”  In hard times, “frivolous” programs are always the first to go – disciplines like the arts, music and humanities – the very ones that stretch imagination and encourage us to envision new possibilities.

By the time we are adults, we’ve learned how to sideline play in order to get down to business.  Even – or perhaps especially – in the creative realm, it’s no simple matter to let go of goal-oriented behavior when competition in the marketplace is so stiff.  Working for concrete or pre-defined results is the antithesis of the kind of free experimentation that opens up new vistas.

Some sort of strategy is usually needed for us to approach the unselfconscious freedom of children at play, but it doesn’t need to be anything dramatic.  At the end of his life, Joseph Campbell said an hour a day in a quiet room with a favorite book or a journal is enough for us to step into sacred space where the real hero’s journey always takes place.

Simple but never easy.  In a recent post on his own blog, Michael Meade quoted these marvelous lines penned by E.E. Cummings:

“To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day,
to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any
human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”

The fact that the battle is hard is all the more reason why we cannot afford to forget how to play.

5 thoughts on “The Serious Business of Play

    • That’s a really good point. Knowing / remembering context is crucial. I remember hearing a long time ago, when The Bionic Man was popular on TV, one grade school boy suffered some broken bones when he jumped off his roof. His explanation was that if he injured himself, “they’d make me bionic.”

      From all indications though, you’re old enough to distinguish ordinary from non-ordinary reality. (fingers crossed).


  1. Finally getting caught up on my reading and happy to find this. I’m so delighted that my granddaughter at age six is still so busy imagining and pretending. So many kids have that knocked out of them in preschool. It isn’t really tolerated in school at any level except by a few. How sad that it. Thanks for reminding us of this important activity. Your posts are always something of a reality check for me, and I mean that in the best possible way.


    • I think it makes all the difference in the world if a kid can find an adult champion for their creative endeavors and imaginings. Artistic originality is usually a casualty of grade school too…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s