the direct link between play in childhood and survival in a future of automation


it may seem outrageous to draw a link between free play, imagination, and creativity in childhood and survival in the future. but it’s real, and has in various ways been written about by the hbr (harvard business review), forbes, quartz, mckinsey quarterly, the ny times and many many other publications. 

that machines will come in and take over large parts of what has so far been considered “our” work, is known. large tracts of work that is linear, repetitive, logical, efficiency driven and tactical will be farmed out to machines who are more productive and have lower margin of error.

the work that will survive is creative, non-linear, complex and involving human skills such as empathy, grit, self awareness and control. helping kids play more “will equip them to be relevant to the workplace and to society,” said john goodwin, ceo of the lego foundation and the former chief financial officer for the lego group.

in such a situation what is the point of focussing our child’s “educational” activities on gathering knowledge, improving computational skills, making linear connections…. “we’re trying to train our kids to be better computers, but our kids will never be better computers than computers,” says kathy hirsh-pasek, a professor of psychology at temple university said in an article in the new york times.

these skills will come, everybody learnt them at some point in time – but should they be the sole focus? absolutely not.

decades of research has shown that creative play is supremely important in allowing children to develop imagination, problem solving skills, social skills, learning to learn and an internal locus of control. sir ken robinson says, “the simple act of free, self-initiated play helps unlock a child’s innate creativity, imagination, interests and talents… it helps children to uncover who they are, and imparts invaluable skills they will need to possess in the uncertain future they will face tomorrow.”


the bad news –

this sort of play is on the decline – from the time children become “pre school ready”, or even before this nowadays – parents get busy looking for organised “activities” to park their children in – learning to swim, learning to dance, learning to draw, playing a sport, going to school, writing the alphabet, tracing the alphabet, sorting out shapes, identifying animals, puzzles, worksheet – whether at home or school the list of “activities” (no matter how innovative and interesting) is detrimental to play.

these “activities” assume a linear view of learning – there is a goal set by the adult, and the child is led along a pre-determined path by the adult to arrive at the goal. in this scenario, the child may have learnt what the adult hoped to accomplish but nowhere has the child discovered something about himself/herself, used their own internal locus of control, used their inherent imagination and creativity, developed any social skills (like empathy, self awareness, ability to deal with failure)… in what way then are we preparing our children for the future which needs these skills most?


the good news –  

this sort of self directed imaginative play is not that complex to build!! it’s a natural process for children – “studies have shown, that if we’re well fed, safe and rested, all mammals including our children will play spontaneously” stuart brown.

  • all we need to do above all is have faith in our children and their ability to self-direct, and play in a way that is beneficial to their own development – physical, emotional and cognitive
  • give them freedom! - we need to do is allow a little bit of time everyday for our children to be free from any guided activity or task 
  • have a lot of open-ended toys that children can transform with their imaginations
  • have developmentally appropriate toys that are safe for the child to use without constant guidance or monitoring and that are suitable for certain stages of their physical development






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