The Delicate Dance of Work and Play

Children typically associate summertime with rest and play whereas September can bring groans in returning to schoolwork. While play and work are opposite they are still connected and mutually beneficial. In fact, the research is very clear that both play and work activities have a role in the growth and development of a child. It is through play that the problem solving and neural networks in the brain grow, allowing a child to benefit from the stimulation and instruction of a school environment. Research studies from neuroscience demonstrate that children who lack conditions that foster play actually have brains that are 20 to 30% less developed in capacity. Play is not empty time; it is how children build the brains that are required for work and learning.jeu d'enfant

Many would argue that we have become increasingly preoccupied with work and outcomes in the 21st century at the sacrifice of play. In universities this is evident in the increasing number of research projects that are focused on producing products or knowledge with a marketable application. This is done at the expense of research that pursues creative interests and discovery, regardless of application. In many ways, the need to produce serves to handcuff creativity. Some progressive workplaces have caught onto this and have carved time into their employee’s workday for playing and creating, free of the constraints and pressure to produce. When we turn our gaze to children we see increasing pressure to produce and work even in their free time from school. We turn them into workers through extracurricular activities. From sports to music you hear the language of outcome, of doing better, of building skills, and of advancing to the next level. The focus of the activity shifts from having fun in the moment to the end goal.

Nonetheless, if the pendulum were swung in the opposite direction and it was only about playing and creating with little work, we would struggle to survive. The functioning of our society and its’ very fabric necessitate work and sacrifice among its members. The children’s story, The Three Little Pigs tells the cautionary tale that sometimes play needs to be sacrificed for the purpose of building a strong foundation that can withstand adversity. It was with this belief that I persevered through many years of formal education, valuing the work and sacrifice required to earn degrees and build a foundation for my future.

Perhaps the answer is never found in pendulum swings but in the movement between the two. We need both work and play and to unbalance our children in either regard puts them at a disadvantage. The cost of all work and no play is the loss of creativity and in discovering one’s unique fingerprint in this world. I have taught university students who are capable of hard work but lack creativity and creative students who struggle to work. It is a delight to find students who can be creative as well as work hard. In fact, I used to plead with my first year university students to stop looking to academia for the answers and to bring their questions to school instead.  I encouraged them to leave the land of “is this going to be on the test?” to “my brain feels on fire with a million possibilities and permutations.” My desire for each of them was to find time to play with the ideas they were working to learn.

The reality is that work is a part of life and our goals necessitate sacrifice. We need at some point to engage our children to value that nothing worthwhile ever comes without a little effort. However, it is not until around the age of 5 to 7 that this capacity for understanding work becomes developmentally appropriate. Changes in the prefrontal cortex will allow them for the first time ever to hang onto two thoughts simultaneously. Work requires this conflictual relationship, of being able to sacrifice and manage frustration because on the other side is a desired outcome. Indeed, this was my daughter’s experience of her first week in grade one where the curriculum is shifting away from play and into skill acquisition and mastery. When asked how her first week went she gave it a thumbs up and a thumbs down. She said that part of grade one was fun but the other part of it was work. I acknowledged her new found realization, that both play and work are part of life and what interesting dance partners they make indeed.


Copyright Deborah MacNamara, PhD, Kid’s Best Bet – Dr. Deborah MacNamara is a counsellor in private practice and on faculty at the Neufeld Institute. She works with parents, educators, child-care and mental health professionals in making sense of kids from the inside out. See or for more information.