Updated: Sep 12
Play may be a child’s work, but teenagers need time to explore as well
In an incredible stroke of luck, I landed my dream job right out of college: teaching preschool at Bing Nursery School, the renowned Laboratory Preschool for the Psychology Department at Stanford University.
Our work at Bing was embedded in the new field of developmental psychology, led by pioneers like Stanford’s Eleanor Maccoby and Albert Bandura. These forward-thinking psychologists studied young children as complex beings, capable of creative problem solving. Walter Mischel, PhD, developer of the famed marshmallow test, conducted his research at Bing in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
In a play-based setting, we early childhood educators emphasized development of the whole child, a multi-dimensional way of looking at a child’s mental, physical, social, and emotional development. Now we call it individualized curriculum, but I could identify a child just by a sock on the ground.
The Bing kids rolled down grassy green hills designed by a famous landscape architect, swung in wisteria-twined groves, and built elaborate structures in large sand areas with running water. It may have been child’s play, but the underlying educational tenets were profoundly serious.
In early childhood, much of a child’s work is about self-discovery. According to the famed Swiss child psychologist Jean Piaget, “Play is the work of childhood.” That is, a young child’s primary developmental task is to discover a sense of self through exploration or play.
But why do we assume that exploration of self somehow stops in early childhood? In many ways, a four year old is not so different from a 14 year old. When do we stop giving kids permission to explore?
At Bing, we used to tell parents that taking risks is similar to the number of pebbles a child holds in his or her hand. If a child holds a handful of pebbles, she is more likely to “spend” her pebbles — to make a new friend, approach an adult for help, or try woodworking tools for the first time. She is free to use a few precious pebbles, knowing that she holds more in her hand.
On the other hand, if a child holds just one pebble in his hand, he is much more likely to protect that pebble, to close his hand, to shy away from taking risks. Unable to spend his single pebble, he will be less likely to join a new play group, raise his hand at big group time, or build a more complex block structure.
Today, many of our adolescents feel that they must approach life holding just one pebble in their hands.
“Play may be a child’s work, but adolescents need time to explore as well”
Many are anxious, having internalized our culture’s limited notion of success perpetuated by peers, parents, and the community. They’re afraid to take risks, to try something new, to get a bad grade in life.
Their lives are circumscribed by what Rich Karlgaard, author of Late Bloomers: The Power of Patience in a World Obsessed with Early Achievement, calls “the conveyor belt to success.” This conveyor belts moves students along “a narrow path of success and starves them of opportunities for self-discovery.”
In our culture today, or so the prevailing attitude goes, it’s better to get on the conveyor belt early…and stay there. No room for the late bloomers, the dreamers, the drifters, the kids who love books but eschew extra-curricular activities, the artistic types who prefer clay over calculus.
Challenge Success, a nonprofit affiliated with Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, advocates for a broad definition of success, because, “After all, success is measured over the course of a lifetime, not at the end of a semester.”
For too many of our teens and young adults, this narrow definition of success — defined by grades, test scores, college admission, etc. — is limiting and soul-crushing.
How can a student talented in fine arts find her path when she is consuming a STEM diet of science, math, and technology? How can a budding creative writer discover his gift when he hears that medicine, law, or investment banking is the only ticket to success?
For my own daughter, locked into the high-level track at her Silicon Valley public high school, that meant only three electives over the course of her high school career. Starved for expression of her creativity (a life-long passion), she stuck it out through four years of French and AP Calculus, but lived for the relief of Ceramics.
Art classes saved her, she tells me now, 10 years beyond her high school experience. Having an artistic practice allowed her to center herself in the morning (when Ceramics was first period), or de-stress at the end of the day (when Ceramics was last period). A sympathetic art teacher would let her stay late and even occasionally (don’t tell) skip part of her next block period.
In Silicon Valley, the pervasive mantra fail fast puts even more pressure on teens to determine the direction of their lives…and to do it quickly! In truth, no 18 year old is equipped (nor should they be) to portend their future, to know in high school what major, passion, or career they should pursue.
We don’t rush a baby learning to roll over, or a toddler learning to stand. Why do we forget that every child and adolescent develops according to his or her own timetable? Even the Magic 8 Ball offers up advice such as, “Reply hazy, try again,” “Cannot predict now” and “Ask again later.” Or my favorite, “Better not tell you now.” There were years when I ran my life based on the morning’s advice from the magic ball.
So, parents, be sure that your child always has a handful of pebbles. They need to be able to take risks, explore their options, learn who they are, mess up and try again. Practice makes perfect, and “fail fast” should never apply to children.
Let your kids step off the conveyor belt, if need be…another one will come along soon. Education