Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Where the Action Is: On the Site of the Playful Life (Part 7: In Pursuit of the Play Dividend)

This post in the latest installment in my series of posts on the importance of play

This morning I read this short article by Bertrand Russell entitled "In Praise of Idleness". As always, Russell is the perfect author to turn to for inspiration on bold and imaginative ideas.

So Russell's article has inspired me to write a post that brings together a number of themes I have been working on of late- namely, health, happiness and play. And that proposal is that the government ought to prioritize and implement what we might call the pursuit of the "Play Dividend".

What do I propose? We need to increase the opportunities for play at all stages of the human lifespan. The Play Dividend focuses on a two-fold strategy:

(1) reconceptualising the education of our children, so that play is an intricate part of their physical, social, imaginative and moral development; and

(2) to re-calibrate the balance between work and play in adulthood by reducing the number of hours (by an average of 2 hours a day) spent in paid employment. Instead of the standard full time workload of 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, the Play Dividend campaign would transform this to 6 hours a day, 5 days a week (or, alternatively, 7.5 hours for 4 days).

Such a proposal is, I believe, a modest yet feasible one that would help the population and governments more accurately appreciate and value the importance of the opportunities for leisure, family and play.

What would the benefits of the Play Dividend most likely be? I think there are at least 5 important identifiable benefits:

(1) A happier population
(2) A healthier population
(3) Healthier families
(4) More creative individuals and cultures
(5) 1-4 would bring enormous economic benefits.

Pursuing the Play Dividend ought to become a priority for all countries affluent enough to pursue and implement it. Yet, sadly, it is unlikely to get strong support (at least initially) from the very people who would benefit the most from it- the citizenry themselves. Why is there likely to be so much opposition to this proposal? No doubt there are many factors at play. I will briefly identify only a few.

One concern is simply economical- many people will be unwilling to give up the income they would lose by reducing the number of hours they work. They (falsely) believe that more money will bring them greater happiness, and the prevalence of this belief is thus a major obstacle to realizing the Play Dividend.

Advocates of the Play Dividend need to topple the myths upon which current economic policies are premised. Rather than simply assuming that growing a nation's GDP is the most important goal, we need a rival of the Aristotelian vision of politics as the science primarily concerned with eudaimonia (happiness). Advocates of the Play Dividend thus need to draw upon insights from philosophy and the findings of positive psychology in order to effectively pitch the proposal.

Another reason that many will object to the Play Dividend is identified by Russell in "In Praise of Idleness". Namely, that we are raised to believe that "work for work's sake" is a virtue and that play and leisure a vice. And this is why it is vital to instill a respect for the importance of play early in a child's education. If our children are raised to respect play and leisure they will treasure them throughout their whole life. Thus the Play Dividend can serve as the basis for an ambitious reform in education at all levels of schooling.

By the time a child finishes high school they should have developed at least one physical sport (e.g. sport like soccer, or running, or weight training, etc.) and one artistic endeavour (e.g. mastering a musical instrument, drama, culinary art, dance, etc.) to a level of enjoyment and achievement that they will stay with them for the rest of their lives. These activities would, in effect, be an intricate part of their identity. And teachers and the education curriculum should be as determined to ensure that all children finish school with these two skills as they are concerned that all students develop the skills necessary to enter the workforce (e.g. read, write, math, science, etc.).

Envision your 13 year-old child coming home from school and saying "I learned how to cook chicken Parmesan today". Or imagine a homework assignment that entails helping to teach your child how to cook the family an omelet breakfast on Sunday or help plan the next family vacation.

The pursuit and celebration of leisure and social and imaginative play ought to be integral part of our development, from childhood through retirement.

Sadly, time for family and play is becoming more and more scarce. This report notes that, over the past 20 years, the amount of time women spend with their families has declined by 39 minutes for the typical working day and for men the decline was 45 minutes. The reduced working hours of the Play Dividend campaign would help parents and spouses re-claim that valuable time back. What could be more important than having more time to spend with loved ones? You can't put a monetary value on this time and yet our culture has become so impoverished that we have let the most important opportunities to our health and happiness erode. Namely, our relationships with loved ones. Help reverse this sad state of affairs. Demand your government support the Play (or call it the "Family" or "Leisure" or "Creativity") Dividend.

Here are some inspirational Ted talks that endorse the values and principles which underpin the Play Dividend campaign: