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Can We Afford to Play?

Whether we call it play, down time, or hanging out, it is difficult to justify the importance of the unstructured or informal moments in our lives in a culture dominated by a hyper-focus on increasing productivity, maximizing efficiency, and accountability at any cost. I worry that the “time is money” adage rules our lives. I am a regular reader of the blogs at the Harvard Business Review, and several recent posts have focused on the connection between energy, creativity, and innovation. Earlier this week, Tony Schwartz wrote the following in a post on the personal energy crisis: “The paradigm of “more, bigger, faster”—the free-market rallying cry ever since the industrial revolution began 200 years ago—has hit a wall.” We have hit a wall. More, bigger, and faster does not mean better.

Like Schwartz, most of my colleagues admit to feeling an increasing pressure to schedule and maximize their time, getting the most out of the hours. While this used to apply predominantly to our working hours, we are now feeling this with regards to our increasingly disappearing “down” time. We want to get the most for our time and our money and in our personal lives, and we pass this on to our children, scheduling them for all manner of after-school and weekend “enrichment” activities.

My earliest “enrichment” activity was baton-twirling in the first grade with “lessons” delivered by a tween neighbor with freckles and pigtails. I have fond memories of red glitter and blue and white tassels accompanied by quite a bit of giggling. It was the 70s. From my critical perspective, baton-twirling lessons from a non-expert no longer seems like enrichment, and they stand in marked contrast to my son’s weekly art class at the Museum of Fine Arts, taught by credentialed professionals.

Increasing the productivity of after-school activities is not the only thing that has changed. My six-year-old son’s school day is packed with a series of 45-minute blocks. His teacher’s lesson plans are based on a system-wide curriculum developed by experts. There is very little “down” time, and there are several outcomes that he will need to achieve before he can successfully graduate into the first grade.

At this neighborhood public school in Boston, many of the parents and teachers are concerned about the elimination of play from daily lives. His teacher, who has been teaching kindergarten for over 20 years, is worried about social development amidst this rigid emphasis on testing and outcomes. There is little time for teaching children to share, to negotiate, or to treat one another with empathy and respect. There is little time to teach children the foundations of a democratic society. Bullying is out of control. The five- and six-year-old kids in my son’s class are already throwing out the insult—“you’re gay!”

What role does informal learning play in college where costs are often linked to courses rather than credentials? The exorbitant cost of higher education in the U.S. has placed it out of reach for many; at $40-50k per year, college is a serious financial investment for students and, often, for their parents. When viewed through the lens of expenses, ‘hanging out’ seems like a serious waste of time and money. Why pay so much for hanging out when students can do that at home for free?

Down time, hanging out, and play are necessary components for the ongoing activity of democracy. When we eliminate time that we cannot easily quantify, when we eliminate the unscheduled blocks from our schedule, I believe that we eliminate what makes us creative, sharing, and empathetic humans. The combination of formal and informal learning creates the ideal situation of education and facilitates learning that makes sense in the classroom and in the rest of our lives.

Although I believe this to be true, I also believe that a distrust of the value of hanging out is a completely rational response to this level of investment of time and money. For me, the real question becomes: How do we create a space where professors can continue to respect and facilitate informal learning as an integral part of the formal learning they facilitate in the classroom? How do they separate themselves from the sticker price of their course?

In administration, we are constantly thinking about the financial implications of decisions, as we should. However, I believe that when professors and teachers do this, it can be detrimental to learning, and ultimately, to society.

I don’t know about you, but I’m sick of more, bigger, faster. I’d like better, nicer, and more creative.

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