How “play” increases the hire-ability of your children.

It turns out that all work and no play could affect your child’s chances of landing the job of his dreams.

In her book, Prepared, Diane Tavener observes that in “the 1950s, the top skills employers wanted were: 1) The ability to work rapidly and for long periods of time, 2) Memory for details and directions, and 3) Arithmetic computation. But according to Forbes, the employees of 2020 need: 1) Complex problem solving, 2) Critical thinking, 3) Creativity, 4) People management, 5) Coordinating with others, and 6) Emotional intelligence. Employers want innovative thinking, independence, initiative. These were not coveted skills in our grandparents’ time.”

In the same vein, a recent study by The Brookings Institution, found that “leaders of some of the largest technology companies in the United States highlight the importance of critical thinking, communication, collaboration, creativity, and leadership.”

If these skills sound vaguely familiar, it may be because they are nearly identical to the ones that were highlighted in this post with regards to the benefits of play. Seeing that the purpose of education (at least in part) is to help our children prepare for a future career, this seeming “coincidence” is worth investigating.  Let’s take a look at what a few companies say they are looking for in their future employees:

IBM:  An IBM survey of more than 1,500 chief executive officers from 60 countries identified creativity as the most important leadership attribute.

American Airlines: Maya Leibman, executive vice president and chief information officer says, “My own personal observation in a quarter century as a business executive are of the failings of those difficult to work with, despite their impressive IQs and pedigrees, while those who are kind and empathetic gain followers and stature.”

Microsoft: Michele Freed, general manager of education experiences at Microsoft, shared, “To be successful, students must learn and apply project-management skills and design-thinking approaches, be able to deal with complex and ambiguous problems and, most importantly, collaborate with each other to succeed..”

Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook said in an interview that they are looking for:

  • People that work with a passion and an idealism.
  • People that don’t take no for an answer.
  • People that don’t accept the status quo.
  • People that are inherently not satisfied with things. They know things should be different. They focus on it until they find an answer.
  • People that can’t be told things are impossible.

When was the last time you heard of a student in a traditional school setting who was allowed to work with passion on a project, who was allowed to question the instruction of a teacher, and who was able to work on an activity for days or weeks at a time without having to cram for exams in other subjects as well?

Google: Lazlo Bock, former Senior Vice President of People Operations at Google, Inc. and founder of Humu, explains why things like GPA (grade point average) and exam scores don’t count for much when looking for new hires: “Academic environments are artificial environments. People who succeed there are sort of finely trained, they’re conditioned to succeed in that environment.”

Tesla: “There’s four main principles that are important at Tesla — being innovative, driven, collaborative and trustworthy,” says Cindy Nicola, Tesla’s head of global recruiting.  “We are looking for people that are comfortable with ambiguity. What we are doing here is really hard, it’s never been done before, there’s not always an instant right answer, so when we are doing those problem-solving exercises we are actually looking for how people think and how they approach problems, versus having the perfect answer.”

Comfortable with ambiguity? No perfect answer? Try telling that to a high school or university graduate who has spent the last 16 years of their lives learning all the “right answers” and working tirelessly to outperform their peers, not collaborate with them.  

From being able to work with others, to inventing new things or ideas, to problem-solving, to intense focus on a single task, to the ability to show empathy, these are all skills developed while at play, and really only while in a state of play. In an organizational context, play may be broadly defined as:

“an intrinsically motivated, fun activity, carried out recursively in the form of a practice, typically in the context of social relationships.”

Playing at Work, Samuel West

The irony is that as time dedicated to playful learning increases, so does the the quality and quantity of the work at hand. Think about those times when you were made to do something that you dreaded. You got easily “side-tracked”, lost your focus, got sloppy because you didn’t really care, etc. Contrast this to when you are in a state of play or “flow”: You lose track of time, are intensely focused on your task, you are willing to do difficult tasks and take risks, you sometimes forget to eat (or pee) and are usually extremely happy. Not only are children learning invaluable skills for their future careers, but they are actually much more productive in their work when learning in a state of play.

Play essentially makes kids (and adults) happier, and happiness is grossly overlooked as a necessary component in traditional education (to tragic ends). However, research shows that it is when employees are in a happy and playful state, that both creativity and productivity truly thrive.

Take Google’s 20% project, for example, where employees get time each week to “play around” with their own ideas that are not necessarily related to their specific job or role in the company.  

“The idea is pretty simple: It’s that you, or a team, or a company–anyone, really–should divide your time working, so that at least 20 percent is spent exploring or working on projects that show no promise of paying immediate dividends but that might reveal big opportunities down the road.”

This 20 percent time led to a few “side projects” called Gmail and Groupon, just to name a few.  I’d say that it worked out alright for Google’s bottom line.  

And though Google made 20% projects famous, the concept originated with 3M more than 70 years ago. Currently 3M is in the middle of fine-tuning a purifier that “pulls contaminants and certain DNA out of the cell culture as scientists develop new protein-based drugs… The filters have been on sale for about six years but have never been more critical as researchers try to speed up the creation of drugs and vaccines to fight Covid-19.”

“The purifiers are a complex product with a simple origin: 3M’s so-called 15% rule, which invites 3M employees to devote about 15% of their time to “experimental doodling,” or work on pet projects. The philosophy has lasted more than 70 years. Masking tape, multilayer optical film on laptops and smartphones and the trusty Post-it Note owe their existence to this rule.”

WSJ: Corporate America’s Most Underrated Innovation Strategy: 3M’s 15% Rule

There are a very few mainstream schools out there who have bought into this idea of 20% time in their classrooms, but those who have, have had inspiring results. Derry Hannam, author of Another Way is Possible, had the privilege of introducing this idea to several of the schools he led over his 40 years in education. Speaking of one of his schools, he said:

“At the point where I left the school to become an inspector the idea was being discussed of having an ‘activities week’  every term – which would have represented about 8% of annual curriculum time. No one regarded this as time lost or wasted – far from it.  Some students previously disengaged from school  changed their attitudes entirely.”

Derry Hannam, The 20% Project for Schools, A Modest Proposal

The reality, though, is that the vast majority of our institutions of learning are still emphasizing only cognitive achievement, which is unsettling if we are to be honest about how artificial intelligence puts the human brain to shame when it comes to its ability to download information. Why wouldn’t more schools take the opportunity to empower students to develop all of these essential skills to be used in their future careers and to keep them from becoming irrelevant as human beings?

Having taught in the classroom, I experienced first hand the lack of time to be able to incorporate these creative projects (due to the hundreds of mandatory standards that must be “covered” each year) as well as a lack of resources (money and other teachers/facilitators). Teacher-centered, whole-group instruction is just more efficient. It always has been, and always will be.  Not to mention that you wouldn’t be able to assess and rank children who are deeply engaged in play and learning everyday, but that’s a conversation for another time. It’s simply not “practical” for schools to allow students the time to play deeply with the ideas that they feel passionate about.  The great news is that as home educators, our children can devote not only 20 percent, but all of their time to pursuits that are meaningful to them.

What about knowledge? This is a question that every parent and educator should never stop wresting with. Play and knowledge aren’t mutually exclusive ideas, but instead should always be working in collaboration with each other. It’s been especially obvious during this past year that knowledge can be obtained at any time and anywhere, if you have the ability to be connected. You don’t need a school, you don’t need a teacher, and you can learn absolutely anything. The key factor to consider when trying to decide if and when your child should learn certain content, is what your child plans to do with the knowledge he obtains. An intentional, purpose-filled course-of-study necessarily depends on the unique interests of your child. When knowledge is pursued and then put to use for a purpose, our children are no longer learning irrelevant facts, but information that is applicable to their lives today and to their futures. Education author Tony Wagner speaks more about this idea here:

Don’t kids need to learn to suck it up and learn to do things they don’t want to do? Once again, if the “difficult task” lies within the context of a clear purpose, then a child will understand that the difficult work has value. If someone told me to start digging a hole in my back garden, and gave me no explanation as to why, it wouldn’t take long for that task to be unbearable. Just because I am doing arbitrary “hard work” doesn’t mean that it’s good for me. Children in traditional schools are being made to dig a bunch of holes and when they dare ask why, the answer is often, “you just do” or “because it’s on the exam.” I remember being there as a teacher and having to honestly tell my students that I had no idea why they had to learn particular standards and wishing we had time for the content they did want to explore. Another irony of play, though, is that a person is indeed willing to do hard things, make sacrifices, and take risks for the sake of authentic learning.

So what’s really at stake here?
 When children leave today’s institutions of learning there is no doubt that they will know a lot of stuff, but will it be the right stuff and at what expense will it be gained? When play, and thus happiness, is marginalized in our institutions of learning, it’s no surprise when we read studies showing mental health issues rising drastically among young people (and this was before the Covid-19 pandemic). Unless we intentionally combat the arbitrary demands of learning imposed on children and broaden our definition of education to more than simply the acquisition of knowledge, everyone loses. Our children risk losing their childhoods, parents risk losing their happy and healthy children, and society as a whole risks losing because it will not be privy to the ideas, innovations, songs, stories, and more that would have come from these children had they had the freedom to create, collaborate, problem-solve, and play.  

Let’s give our children the gift of play today. They will be happier, healthier, more productive, and will be sharpening the skills that 21st century employers are looking for.

Not sure what exactly might interest your child to get them learning and playing in meaningful ways? Head over to my Resource Page to download a free pdf of “Discover Your Child’s Unique Interests and Desires.”

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