"What's crazy Eva up to now?"
This is a question almost everyone who knows me well has asked at least once. Because I have always been a playful person. High-achieving, studious and competitive, yes. But also extremely playful.
My life changed in the fall of 2006 when I attended a lecture by Dr. Stuart Brown, psychiatrist, author and founder of the National Institute for Play. His lecture, "The Importance of Play," made me feel joyous -- but it also made me realize that I could do serious research on the most fun and meaningful topic in the world to me: play.
So I did what anyone would do and completed a bachelor's and master's in psychology at Stanford. My thesis, "The Happy Talent: A Prototype of the Playful Adult," focused on answering three questions:
- What are the characteristics of a playful person? (My advisor told me that I had to answer this before anything else.)
- Is playfulness a trait or a skill?
- If playfulness is, indeed, a skill... are kids in today's over-scheduled, helicopter-parented, technology-driven world missing valuable opportunities to learn to play? Could this be why high school and college students today suffer from depression, anxiety, substance abuse, eating disorders and other mental health issues in numbers never seen before?
In short, I found that playfulness is a skill. The young adults I surveyed, whether they attended a community college part-time or Stanford University full-time, desired similar amounts of play in their lives... But when asked what kept them from being as playful as they'd like, I heard very different answers.
Students who grew up with fewer resources reported that concrete things, like having to work or not owning a car, kept them from achieving desired levels of play. But those from over-scheduled (and often higher socioeconomic) environments said they didn't play because there was nothing to do.
Nothing to do?
Nothing to do in Palo Alto, California? Where we have green grass all year? Outdoor swimming pools, redwood forests, beaches, concerts, and San Francisco -- all just a short drive or train ride away? Not to mention the millions of dollars Stanford spends every year on residential programming, speakers' bureaus, facilities, and student organizations. Whatever it is you want to do in your free time, Stanford can support it. So what gives?
What gives is that the disappearance of free play in childhood (as noted by Hufferth & Sundberg, 2001 and Murphy, 2005) appeared right before the major increase in mental health problems we're seeing in young people today.
This is why I spend so much time thinking, reading and writing about play. In my experience, it doesn't matter how many opportunities you missed as a kid. It's never too late to learn.
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