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  • Writer's pictureBrian VanDongen

A Refocus on Play in the 21st Century

So, it’s safe to say that 2020 has been a year.

It started with tensions between the United States and Iran, an impeachment trial, and the introduction of a novel coronavirus. Kobe Bryant passed away. The coronavirus turned into a pandemic and global public health crisis. People were ordered to stay home and businesses were ordered to close in an effort to prevent the spread of the virus. Millions were laid off or furloughed from their job. The stock market tanked. Protesters fought against the business closures. Schools were closed, students learned remotely, commencements were held virtually. Sports canceled. As businesses reopened, people fought against wearing face coverings. Now, face coverings are essentially required in nearly every state. George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police. The Black Lives Matter movement reemerged stronger than ever before. COVID-19 is more prevalent than when the economy was shut down and shows no signs of slowing. 

I don’t know about you, but my brain hurts.

If there is a silver lining in all of the tragedy, all of the stress, all of the uncertainty, and all of the craziness that has been 2020, is that there may be a refocusing on what exactly is important. 

Teachers and corporate executives alike have been touting the importance of so-called “21st century skills”: technology use, data analysis, information review and fact-checking. 

But, those miss what may be even more important 21st century skills. These skills are also 18th century skills, 19th century skills, and 20th century skills. Now, maybe more than ever, we need to recognize that empathy, leadership, communication, and interpersonal skills are essential to the 21st century. And an easy, free, simple way those skills can be learned? Play.

What is Play?

This may seem like a simple question, but it is not.

To make a long discussion short, play, to me, is best defined as play is in the eye of the player. There is no right way to play, nor is there a wrong way to play. 

And the best thing about free play? Everyone, every player, can make it their own and experience their own success based on their own ability.

Play is not just for children. It is not frivolous. It is not a waste of time.

We know this because play is prevalent in the natural world. Dogs play. Cats play. Dolphins play. Elephants play. Bears play. Play helps animals adapt to their environment, to their world. Especially an ever changing world. Humans need to play for these exact reasons too.

Play teaches us the important interpersonal 21st century skills of leadership, communication, and empathy.

Play Helps Us Lead… and Be Led

Leadership is a two way street. We all can’t be leaders and we all can’t be followers. There are times when we need to step up and be a leader, just as there are times we need to be led.

In play, we learn conflict negotiation and compromise. When we are creating a new game on the fly, the rules may not be predefined. When a situation arises that wasn’t part of the pre-game discussion, we negotiate what we think is a fair and just resolution.

Sometimes in play, we need to lead and sometimes we are led. We learn our own leadership styles and when it is appropriate and necessary to implement different leadership styles. We learn how people react to different situations and leadership styles.

Play Enhances Communication

When we play cooperatively, such as building a castle or a fort with friends or siblings, we learn how to communicate our ideas, our visions, and our desires.

In play, we learn how to recognize facial expressions and nonverbal cues.

We learn to hold conversations. We expand our vocabulary and literacy skills.

Clear communication is essential throughout life. We learn how to communicate clearly through play.

Play Builds Empathy

Empathy is often thought of as “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.” But empathy is really understanding how that person feels in their own shoes.

In pretend play (when we act as someone else such as a doctor, astronaut, postal worker, custodian, and many more), we can build empathy by gaining an understanding of how different people feel about themselves and about their actions.

When a friend falls off the monkey bars and is upset, we can imagine how they feel, comfort them and encourage them to try again or give them suggestions and help to achieve their goal of crossing. 

Empathy in the “real world” can enhance our friendships, business relationships, organizational culture, collaboration, and productivity.

Play is a Natural Talent

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “it is a happy talent to know how to play.” Fortunately, that talent is inside all of us. While it may get oppressed as we get older, our schedules become more hectic, and our views of play shift as unnecessary, we still need to play.

We need to play when we are young. We need to play when we are old. 

Play teaches us many essential life skills, skills that we need in the 21st century. Skills that we need to adapt to an ever changing world. Skills that have a renewed sense of importance in the crazy year that has been 2020.

In my book, Play to Live: Life Skills and Joy Through the Natural Talent to Play, I tell stories of successful play events and techniques that you can apply to your life immediately to unleash your natural talent to play. Get your copy on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Apple Books.

Featured Image: Child Playing by Yan-Di Chang CC BY 2.0

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