If you want your kid to get a good job, let them play more

Look at me, I can fly!
Look at me, I can fly!
Image: Upsplash/Leo Rivas
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Fears about automation displacing workers around the world ranked high on the list of Things to Be Very Worried About at the World Economic Forum in January. “At the end of the day, we have to fire a lot of people,” said Ursula Burns, chairman of the supervisory board at telecom group VEON, and former CEO of Xerox—which, indeed, recently had to fire a lot of people.

Most of the remedies on offer were the usual high-level suggestions: re-train workers, offer some kind of universal basic income, design a “new social contract” that requires companies to factor in the needs of workers along with maximizing shareholder value. But one group of CEOs looked a little further down the supply chain, offering a scientifically grounded but under-appreciated solution to the problem: play.

Helping kids play more “will equip them to be relevant to the workplace and to society,” said John Goodwin, CEO of the Lego Foundation and the former chief financial officer for The Lego Group.

That may sound self-serving coming from a Lego executive. But research shows that play is crucial in establishing the foundations of social, emotional, and academic learning. Dressing up like Batman or building imaginary cities with blocks help young children cultivate creativity, develop emotional intelligence and regulation (pdf), and build empathy—the very skills that robots can’t replace.

At Davos, this notion was popular even among those who don’t build toys for a living. Kai Fu Lee, a Taiwanese venture capitalist who opened Google’s China office and who has worked in artificial intelligence (AI) for more than three decades, said we need to develop the skills that are unique to humans. “There are four things AI cannot do as well as humans: creativity, dexterity, compassion, and complexity.” Empathy, he said, would be paramount. “We have a human responsibility to do this.”

Laying the foundations for imaginative problem-solving starts early, said Goodwin, who was joined by two other play enthusiasts: Jesper Brodin, CEO of IKEA, and Paul Polman, the CEO of Unilever, who blew off dinner with US president Donald Trump in order to kick off the Real Play Coalition. The group will focus on governments, schools and parents, all of whom seem to undervalue play. They used the World Economic Forum to raise the issue among those who might need to hear it most: industry and government leaders focused on the future of the global economy.

“We don’t look at kids as economic capital,” said Goodwin. “We are vested in children developing from a child-centric perspective.” But the World Economic Forum isn’t focused on kids, or even education; its focus is on capitalism and its component parts, including workers. So the Real Play Coalition cast kids as future workers, championing the radical idea that if we train children in the skills they need to survive automation now, we won’t have to worry as much about re-training them as workers later.

The science of play

According to experts who study such things, play has a technical definition with certain criteria that must be met. Kenneth Rubin, a professor human development at the University of Maryland, and his colleagues, say play should be “intrinsically motivated,” rather than imposed by parents; pleasurable; actively engaging; and operate outside of life’s many rules. (Naptime be damned, we are flying to Mars on a purple unicorn!)

Researchers have identified various categories of play—physical, constructive, imaginative, dramatic, and games with rules—all of which help children develop in three domains: physically, socially and emotionally and cognitively:

  • Imaginative play, such as drawing, dancing, or playing with water, lays the foundations for creativity, allowing kids to express feelings, communicate, and experiment with reality.
  • Building with blocks or cardboard develops fine motor skills. It also helps kids to develop resilience, or grit (those block towers do fall down) and start reasoning and problem-solving (“How do I build a tower that does not fall down?”).
  • Chasing, hiding, jumping and wrestling build gross motor skills, the basis for which will be used to crawl and walk and run, not to mention persevere and think (exercise helps with memory consolidation).
  • Dramatic play (such as dressing up, role play, puppets, and storytelling) helps children with emotional regulation and critical relationship skills, including empathy, cooperation, and negotiation.

“Play is a primary, indeed a primal, way that we learn to understand and experience the world around us,” writes educator and creativity guru Ken Robinson in the introduction to “Real Play Every Day: An Urgent Call to Action,” a white paper on the science of play funded by Unilever. (Unilever, it should be noted, has an incentive for wanting kids to get dirty: It runs one of the world’s largest laundry detergent businesses).

“The simple act of free, self-initiated play helps unlock a child’s innate creativity, imagination, interests and talents,” Robinson writes. “It helps children to uncover who they are, and imparts invaluable skills they will need to possess in the uncertain future they will face tomorrow.”

Play on the wane

We know that play is integral to helping children develop into healthy, well-adapted people. Yet play is an “endangered species,” Goodwin said in Davos to a rapt group of besuited industry executives, who were seated on small block chairs and building Legos. According to research commissioned by Edelman Intelligence, 56% of respondents in a survey of 12,710 parents in 10 countries said their kids spent less than an hour every day playing outside—less time than prisoners in a maximum security prison spend outdoors. One in 10 kids never play outside, and two-thirds of parents say their kids play less than they did. (Quartz has requested the research from Edelman, and will update when we hear back.)

What are kids doing if they’re not playing? Smartphones, video games, and tablets play a role. But so does over-scheduling kids in organized activities like soccer, violin lessons, and dance, which do not fit the definition of play. Parents know kids need academics, sports, and music to “succeed,” so they focus on those activities, relegating play to a trivial pastime that can be sacrificed. Yet pushing kids to spend more time studying has not translated to more engagement in schools. Gallup data shows that about 26% of fifth-graders had a low level of engagement in school; by 12th grade, that figure had reached 68%.

“There is a narrow focus on high-stakes, single-result tests which prevents kids from employing their creative juices,” Goodwin said.

There’s no doubt that kids need to learn math and science. But they also need to learn how to be human. “We’re trying to train our kids to be better computers, but our kids will never be better computers than computers,”  Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple University and a leading expert on play, told the New York Times.  Too often, we underestimate the importance of activities that help kids learn to negotiate with others, explore the world, or invent new ideas. “These are things humans do better than computers, and play helps us develop that.”

Peter Gray, a professor of psychology at Boston University, argues that modern parenting, with its emphasis on organized activities and academics over unstructured, free play, is probably the root of the spike in mental-health problems among kids today. Kids don’t learn critical life-coping skills because they never get to play, he argues: “Children today are less free than they have ever been.” And that lack of freedom has exacted a dramatic toll.

What to do?

Goodwin said the primary purpose of the Real Play Coalition is to elevate the importance of play, so that it’s not just a cause championed by a small group of CEOs at Davos, but an activity that governments and parents embrace and fight for. That starts at birth and extends to schools.

“We are not adapting our education systems for human learning, and that’s where we have to make an intervention with urgency,” he said.

As kids enter preschool and formal schooling, the debate around the right balance of academics and play is fiery. Some argue that taking academics out of early education is fine for rich kids, who have ample enrichment at home, but can hurt poorer kids who start school almost a year behind their wealthier peers. However, many agree that there are ways to make all early learning more playful—including how we think of math in preschool.

The potential for workers to be displaced by automated technology is real, and the angst associated with joblessness—and loss of identity—could lead to social unrest, warned Alibaba’s Jack Ma. “Each technology revolution has made the world unbalanced,” he said at Davos. To shield future generations from such a fate, we need to let them get out the blocks and start building.

This reporting is part of a series supported by a grant from the Bernard van Leer Foundation.