Skip to content

All Work and No Play: When did Americans stop having fun?

By Nicky Penttila

[Note: This cover story appeared — with really great art — in Urbanite Magazine (Baltimore, MD), issue #24, June 2006. Urbanite has since folded and its website gone dark, so I’m reprinting it here.]

I’m too busy. I’m too tired. I’m too worried. I’m too sad. I’d be embarrassed. I don’t see why I should. I can’t remember how. It would be wrong.

What is your reason for skipping out on fun—on being playful, in the moment, doing something just because?

Whatever it is, you are in good company. As a group, Americans—especially East Coast Americans—don’t pencil in as much time as they’d like for plain-old play. Just ask around the watercooler, or check out the blogs, assuming you’ll allow yourself a moment for such idle speculation.

“I’m not sure we’ve ever known how important play is,” says Susan Oliver, executive director of Playing for Keeps, a child advocacy group focused on the significant role of play. “It’s seen as a privilege rather than a necessity, a reward rather than an integral part of development.”

Well, we know now. A few decades’ worth of studies of both children and adults show the benefits of freely chosen play and games, and the costs of not including at least a little playfulness in our lives. Yet we’re still, in the main, an over-serious bunch.

Why? According to the experts, it’s in our blood, in our culture, and in our habits. It all started back when America started, for many of us. The arguments against play and in favor of work began to build with the arrival of the first European immigrants four hundred-some years ago. The Puritans came to the wilds of America and got busy right away working to build their New Jerusalem, a land of God. They had no time—and no patience—for non-work and non-prayerful activities. Other clans arrived on our shores with similar values, most involving endless toil
and then death, with perhaps fun in the afterlife if you had worked hard enough.

The “pursuit of happiness” clause in the Declaration of Independence notwithstanding, even our later forebears weren’t that much cheerier. For every “all work and no play makes Jack a very dull boy,” we had an “idle hands are the devil’s tools.”

Of course, play couldn’t die out, being hard-wired into humanity. In the nineteenth century, Americans passed laws setting maximum work hours, partly in reaction to the seventy-two-hour week people were working in New England textile mills. And in the mandatory downtime before electricity lit up the night, families entertained themselves with stories, games, and music, as well as getting enough sleep. Play was allowed for children, until they could be taught better, and there was talk of joy in daily work and the occasional holiday. But in practice, and in traditions of thought passed from parent to child, generation after generation, play was just a frilly accessory of life. Nice, but not necessary.

There was a bit of blowback in the 1950s and 1960s, when beatniks, hippies, and other counterculture folk caught the eye of the masses and asked uncomfortable questions. Why work so hard? Is work the sole purpose of life? It feels good to play, so why not? But the majority shut the lid on that kind of talk through the 1980s and 1990s, as building wealth to support a booming economy and to support an enviable lifestyle grew from a pleasant enterprise to a screaming need.

Both parents need to work because they need that second car, and need the house with a separate room for everybody, and need those special lessons for the kids, and need that five-hundred-channel satellite dish, the Xbox, the latest PC. If they stopped, what would they have? Debt, and unmet needs that weren’t even wants or dreams to their parents.

This way of thinking, in some respects, has served us fairly well. Americans successfully fought wars and weathered economic depressions and natural cataclysms. But in the case of play, as with others, the common wisdom, while common, is not wise.

Boomer parents remember their own parents as people who played cards with the neighbors, attended and hosted dinner parties. “Greatest generation” parents didn’t seem to need to bring work home, and didn’t seem to worry all the time. Boomers with siblings often slept in the same small bedroom, without emotional or developmental consequence.

The real seams started showing in the 1990s, when technology reached the point when regular people (not doctors, not emergency workers) could be expected to be working at any moment of the day. Now, some people we know sleep not only with their cell phones at their bedsides but also with their BlackBerry e-mail devices under their pillows. And they try to schedule playtime into their calendar, maybe riding bikes, but first they have to get to the sports store and buy all the latest gear or they won’t be able to compete and “win.”

And while all this speed-of-light living has made many of us cranky and sad, it seemed wrong to complain—and unthinkable to stop. We’d been taught that more work is better, and now that we could work more—all our waking hours, if need be—of course that is what we should do.

The pressure was cranked up after the attacks of 9/11, when President Bush told us to work even harder, so we could afford to buy more, keep the economy strong, and make sure terror didn’t win. At this point, stopping for a moment to play, or just to unwind, might get one classified unpatriotic.

Of course, there always have been the naysayers and the visionaries, disputing the common line and living joyful lives despite the downturned faces of their neighbors. The most monetarily successful was Walt Disney, who built an empire on play. But, it seemed, the rest of us were waiting for the data, and until anyone told us different, we’d follow the path our forefathers trod.

Well, the data is rolling in now, and it is pretty convincing.

For instance, working ourselves sick isn’t the only path to success. While Ireland’s economy has taken off in the past two decades, its workers labored an average 285 fewer hours last year than they did two decades ago, according to the International Labor Organization in Geneva.

And in terms of per-hour productivity, France wins hands-down. French employees, when they work, are very efficient—so much so that even though they spend only the government-set thirty-five hours a week at their jobs and take up to eight weeks vacation and holidays each year, their yearly per-employee productivity is fifth-best in the world, according to the ILO. American yearly per-employee productivity is first, but American workers reach that number by working 30% more hours than their French counterparts.

Not only that, but play just may be the secret to thriving in the new information economy. As the U.S. economy tilts more to the service and information sectors, creativity and problem-solving (areas that are developed chiefly through play and playfulness) will be more in demand.

“Creative people are the problem-solvers, which we need,” says Dr. Bowen F. White, a physician, consultant, and author of the book Why Normal Isn’t Healthy. “It’s not just a positive health habit, it’s a positive work habit.”

The scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs who come up with the biggest breakthroughs are the ones who can break out of the mold of same-thinking that the rest of their peers are in. In many cases, they nurture their childlike minds, staying playful and open-minded when others might bow down to cynicism, their “inner voice of reason,” or a fear of failure. And creativity requires downtime, a chance for the brain’s synapses to knit in new ways without pressure. The new approach, or the right answer, just seems to “pop into” your head when it’s ready. It can’t be set to a timer.

Other research indicates that through “authentic play,” which is a state of mind where the mere act of playing and playfulness gives more pleasure than any goal associated with it, children learn and adults improve flexibility and adaptability, as well as trust, empathy, sociability, and intimacy. Play is the gas that makes learning—and growing—happen, as researcher Stuart Brown puts it.

“Play is poorly understood and underused as a positive force in the world,” says Brown, a doctor whose studies included reviewing the lives of death-row inmates in Texas. He found that these troubled men had almost no playtime in their childhoods, not to mention their current lives, a state he termed “play deprivation.” Other cases of play deprivation he has studied include felony drunk drivers, stressed-out lab rats, and overworked students.

“The opposite of play isn’t work,” Brown says, “it’s depression.” When children are ill, they often don’t play. A sign they are starting to recover is the return of that gleam of playfulness in their eyes, and then actual play. The same might be said of neighborhoods, work groups, and communities.

Also unlike their parents, today’s parents are more fearful for their children, both in terms of playground and neighborhood security and future economic success. It feels unsafe to let them out loose to play, it feels unwise to skip any of the “enrichment activities” we can cram into their days. So the amount of time children spend on unstructured activities, exploring, and learning important skills such as how to direct their own time and to entertain themselves, dropped by half in the past twenty years, reports child psychiatrist Dr. Alvin Rosenfeld. Whose fault is it when a 12 year old complains he can’t think of anything to do?

One of the best predictors for school success is the ability to play with others, including imagining oneself in the other’s shoes to develop empathy and understanding. But in many kindergartens—and even preschools—this skill is no longer encouraged. Play also helps children master other school-necessary skills, including self-regulation, self-satisfaction, and the ability to keep oneself entertained while waiting for others to finish their schoolwork. And, as Oliver puts it, “You can’t teach someone how to use their imagination with a worksheet.”

But political initiatives such as No Child Left Behind, which test and reward only cognitive skill-building, are pushing social, individual, and collaborative-creative learning to the side, and in some cases out of school altogether. Art and music classes are once-a-week affairs; recess optional.

Even in preschool, where children were once expected only to learn to “self-regulate” (what we commonly know as playing well with others), the focus is turning to learning to read, do math, and take standardized tests. And apparently, fewer preschoolers are mastering self-regulation: Roughly five thousand preschoolers—six of every one thousand 4 year olds—are kicked out of school each year, according to the Yale Child Study Center.

“The notion of standards is coming down almost to the embryo,” psychologist Adele Brodkin told The New York Times. “We are not allowing normal, creative, interactive play. We are wanting kids to sit down and write their names at 3 and do rote tasks that are extremely boring at a young age.” Such out-of-range expectations can lead to frustration and result in bad behavior, Brodkin and others say.

Play and games foster the development of community by helping players discover how to build mutual trust, cooperation, and common goal setting, as well as building optimism and the power of perseverance, Brown says. Play, including trying on different roles, also has a large part in shaping a person’s inner vision of herself or himself as well as the model of the world she or he uses to navigate through life.

In most cultures, children are given time to play. “But since it’s not required to prevent death, it’s devalued,” Brown says. “And play is not sanctioned for adults.”

Does it need to be sanctioned? Who is telling us what to do? We are.

She acts like a child. He doesn’t take things seriously enough. She lets her children play outside. He takes lunch. She laughs too much. What do you mean, you’re doing nothing?

Ever notice how kids play “grown-up?” It’s not a pretty sight. Mouths turned down, arms crossed, they say such things as, “I’m very busy” and “not now,” says Bernie DeKoven, author of The Well-Played Game. DeKoven theorizes that as they grow, kids just get better and better at playing adults until they forget that it’s only play. They forget they can take off the “adult” mask and just be themselves from time to time—or for good.

“I don’t think it is so much that the world takes away our childhood. I think we do that to ourselves. We get so damn good at pretending to be serious,” he said in a 2001 interview. Americans do know how to have fun. We have the theme parks, entertainment palaces, and booming recreation, sports, and travel industries to prove it. But too many of us just don’t give ourselves permission, or we set rigid boundaries on what is allowable fun and where we are allowed to have it. But the biggest lie we tell ourselves is that we can—we should—wait to have fun until we retire. “Have fun now,” White advises. “Now is all you have, anyway.”

And who decided work couldn’t be fun? An hour on the job, just as an hour throwing a Frisbee, can have moments of creativity, discovery, and cooperative success. Having a playful attitude doesn’t take any more time or energy than having a sour one.

“Play is an experience of work at its best,” says DeKoven. It is when you hit the “flow,” everything is clicking on your project—or, better, everything is clicking at the same time for everyone on the team. It’s not imposed externally, like those foosball tables that were a staple of dot-com businesses a decade back and ended up used mainly to continue an unhealthy competition onto another field. It’s building something bigger than each person’s separate piece, not just working to maintain status or put out the standard product. And it starts with conversation, which in itself can be a great form of play.

Play and games are different for adults, in many ways richer, says DeKoven, who leads corporate employees through mini-exploration in his play community. “I set them up playing patty-cake.” He tells them, “It’s not your inner child doing this. It’s you as a grown-up playing this game. There is no kid here, it’s you. Your whole being, your whole maturity is here playing this game of patty-cake.

“We are truly fully at play as adults. We’re compassionate with each other. We can much more easily delight in each other’s delight than when we were kids. We take much better care of each other. We understand each other more clearly. There are all kinds of wonderful things that we do that we couldn’t do when we were kids, and experience the play contract with each other.”

People in the corporations he works with tell DeKoven they find it very liberating to use the word “fun” to describe the reason they do things day-to-day during one of his play sessions. For at least a little while, they stop thinking of their world in terms of “what I do for fun” and “what I do for everything else” and start seeing all daily life as a chance to play—to have fun, grow, and perform the best they can.

Play deprivation, like sleep deprivation, is chronic and costly. And reversible. There’s plenty of hope for a speedy recovery; all we need is the will. And the gentle self-discipline to set healthy habits and stick to them. The forces of seriousness and overwork are strong indeed. But we have the ultimate weapon: We can make up our own minds.

“If you decide that you’re going to have fun, you can have fun. You can do it now,” White says. “You can have fun with the person giving you trouble at the restaurant, at the grocery.

“Laugh, misbehave, make mistakes, and through it all discover your very own potential for health, healing, and wholeness.”

Choose play, from time to time. Years from now, will you remember that extra hour you spent at work on a sunny June day or that single second of surprise and wonder you felt during a lunch break when you tried to skip—and realized you still could?

Play is a main ingredient in anthropologist and author Ashley Montagu’s definition of health: the ability to work, to love, to play, to think critically. Many of us unthinkingly signed on to the idea that play is not sanctioned for adults. We could as easily make the rule the other way—we are all the bosses of our inner selves. The inner playground is always open.

The outer playground, on the other hand, would require cooperation, a society-wide acceptance of letting loose a little. Here’s hoping enough of us were allowed to play enough as children to have learned that skill.

Sidebar 1 (of 2): What to Do?

-Make sure your kids’ schools provide daily recess and unstructured time for play. They will learn better during instruction if they are replenished, hitting their “reset” buttons, during playtime.

-Make sure there is a balance between work and play at school. Studies are showing that intensive, academics-only curricula do not produce children with better test scores; they produce burnt-out children who are less interested in learning.

-Watch your attitude. Notice when you are critical of children and adults who are “playing around.” If you can, consider joining in.

-Ask: What harm is there in taking a minute to sing a song, even if it’s only in your head? In stepping outside for a moment on your lunch break? In knocking off work for a half-hour and walking to the closest park to watch others at play? In joining in yourself? Wonder at your answers.

-Remember when you are playing that you can quit at any time. You play because you want to, not because you have to.

Sidebar 2: Pick Your Play Personalities

Just as there are many styles of healthy, authentic play, there are many kinds of players. Do you recognize yourself in any—or all—of these descriptions?

The Joker finds humor in every part of life and living and loves to make people laugh. Might be called the “class clown.”

The Explorer loves to go adventuring and holds endless curiosity about how and why the world is the way it is. Physical explorers climb, ski, dive, drive to find new places to explore and ways to stretch their bodies. Intellectual explorers delve into the mind’s pursuits, including science, art, literature, philosophy, and medicine.

The Competitor loves the game itself, loves the challenge to be the best, to challenge mind or body to the ultimate and succeed. Competitors may be found on game fields, performance stages, board rooms.

The Artist loves the forms of beauty, creating, designing, performing.

The Director loves to run the show, which might be directing a musical show, running a country, shepherding a family, or running a shipshape playground.

The Storyteller loves to delight others with tales of imagination or reality.

The Collector loves the hunt and the joy of found treasure, be it first-edition books, shoes, or underperforming companies.

The Performer loves to be in the front of the show, braving the audience in search of connection and accolades.

The Craftsman loves to make excellent things, from pies and whole-family turkey dinners to space shuttles and other mechanical wonders.

—The Institute for Play

 

Share Button

3 Comments

  1. Passive activities like watching TV impede our opportunity to play. Cut TV and invite guests over. Play an instrument, sketch, have a conversation outside of work — when was the last time I did any of these things?

    Thursday, April 4, 2013 at 1:22 pm | Permalink
  2. nickyp wrote:

    I remember “Go outside and play!” as the mantra of my childhood. Let’s tell ourselves that today, too. 😉

    Thursday, April 4, 2013 at 1:30 pm | Permalink
  3. Allen wrote:

    I gave up any social/play time for work and I’m ok, I’m a workaholic, I don’t do much outside of work, and get antsy if I’m not at work, even my 11 year old son knows I’d rather work than anything else, I’m pissed that I can’t cash out my vacation and use the money to pay bills, I’m one of those who will die on a job site

    Wednesday, October 12, 2016 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *
*
*