A few weeks ago, I attended a thought provoking talk at Chautauqua by psychologist Dr. Peter Gray on the art of play, and the importance of play for children. Although the talk was oriented at restoring unstructured play for developing children, I was compelled by the possibilities for adults in movement, as well as integrating play into music lessons and education. Let's take a look at how he defines play first.
There are a few points here that really stand out to me- that play is self initiated by the individual, lacks extrinsic motivation or reward, and is imaginative in some way. How often do adults do anything that is intrinsically motivated? And how often do we create imagination driven contexts as adults? In most cases, not very often, especially not within our traditional work and relationship models.
Dr Gray's primary points are that children (and all mammals) learn valuable life skills through play- social emotional, developmental, coordination, mimicry of adult tasks, courage, and more. As our modern society becomes more focused on achievement based results and school testing, our children have less time outside, period, as well as less time to actually play. He also goes on to explain how children are put in highly structured, adult driven learning environments from an early age. For a six year old, she may have a little bit of homework at night, some sort of sports practice on some afternoons, a different sports practice on other days, and then art, music, or another sort of class. His time to be free and unstructured is relatively minimal, as well as his time to play with other kids in an unstructured way (because they are equally busy).
In terms of research, there has been a significant increase in depression in young people from the 1950's to now. "As based on unchanged measures and criteria, today children and teenagers are five to eight times more likely to be depressed or anxious to a clinically significant degree than they were in the 1950s, and roughly four times more likely to commit suicide."- Peter Gray, the Journal of Play
This statistic alone is alarming, and in his talk, he presented other statistics that also correlated with the lack of movement (sedentarism) and the increasing pressure on young children to perform at a high academic level, i.e. if you don't do well on this test, then...
What then interests me is how can take this research about play, and then apply it to the populations that we work with. I primarily do not teach young children, although I have many colleagues who do, and although I've taken kids yoga training courses, I haven't taught a kids yoga class in years. I do however, work with many high powered, intense, adults, who have long forgotten the possibility of play in their own lives and bodies. How can we bring this work to the people we work with, and how can it enrich their lives? More in part 2 and 3!