The Play Muscle

Each child is born with a play muscle. You can’t find it on any diagram, but it’s still there–waiting to be stretched and strengthened.

Unfortunately, in many adults, this muscle has atrophied almost to the point of disappearing. What a shame–because the play muscle has the potential to expand horizons, discover new worlds, and invent the impossible.

Albert Einstein understood this. From childhood on, he never stopped stretching and strengthening his play muscle.

Starting at fifteen, Einstein began to wonder about light. He thought about it all the time. For ten years he imagined what it would be like to ride on a beam of light. And at the end of his imagining, he published several papers about light that turned the entire scientific community on it’s head and jump-started science down the road of atomic discovery.

Several years later, Niels Bohr imagined what it would be like to be inside an atom. Because he could imagine, he was able to revolutionize the theory of electrons that laid the foundation for our current model of the atom.

Both of these men moved science forward because they had not forgotten how to use their play muscle. They were able to play . . . to imagine . . . to see the impossible.

Dean Radin, a psychologist, described four stages of adopting new ideas. (I found this in a great book called “The Power of Mindful Learning” by Ellen J. Langer.) Radin said, “The first is, 1. ‘It’s impossible.’ 2. ‘Maybe it’s possible, but it’s weak and uninteresting.’ 3. ‘It is true and I told you so.’ 4. ‘I thought of it first.'” Then Ellen Langer adds a fifth, 5. “We always knew that. How could it be otherwise?”

The first step of any new idea is to imagine the impossible.

When Einstein was sixty-eight years old, he wrote to a friend:

People like you and me, though mortal, of course, like everyone else, do not grow old no matter how long we live. What I mean is that we never cease to stand like curious children before the great Mystery into which we are born.

As we strive to inspire learning, we must leave room for the play muscle to grow and strengthen in our kids. We want them to be adults that can play and imagine and create.

How do we do it? We let them play when their children.

It’s always easier to do something correctly the first time than it is to go back and fix it later. Childhood is the best time to strengthen the play muscle. Childhood is a time when ideas aren’t firmly fixed, impression aren’t fully formed, and rules aren’t fully accepted.

As a child grows older, there will be time enough to learn facts and skills. Facts and skills are necessary. Einstein needed to study thousands of years of developed mathematical and scientific facts to accomplish what he did.

But facts and skills alone are not enough to ponder the impossible. They must be layered over a healthy, robust ability to imagine and play. Only then can the real creativity happen.

And what kind of play strengthens the play muscle? Play that is open-ended, imagination filled–where the child does the heavy lifting with their mind. Where the rules change at whim, and pieces are seemingly added or subtracted at random. Where sticks and blankets and rocks and containers filled with water have endless possibility. Where the child rules–without the adult world intruding and imposing and poking it’s nose in to insist on reality.

So let them play.

Give your children wide open free time. Watch their play muscles expand and grow. Let them lay a foundation for a life filled with discovery, imagining, and creativity.

Let them play.

1 Comment

Filed under Theory Behind It All

One response to “The Play Muscle

  1. Scott

    TV and video games can be major factors in limiting imagination and causing atrophy in the “play muscle.” In both of these media, the horizon of imagination is created and framed by someone else rather than by the viewer. Where many children can imagine almost infinite possibilities from everyday objects, the possibilities for expanding creativity from the experience of a video game or TV is significantly limited. I can’t imagine a child who spends most of his or her disposable time during the developing years in front of a video screen, would ever have the kind of creative potential exemplified in your post. Parents who want to develop the “play muscle” in their children need to seriously limit how much time is spent with video games and TV.

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