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Play or Work?

I’ve noticed that adults work and children play – even when they do the same activity.  Ask a child who’s putting together a jigsaw puzzle what he’s doing, and he’ll say, “Playing with a puzzle,” or “Putting a puzzle together.”  Ask an adult the same question and you’ll hear, “Working on a puzzle.”

Several years ago as a student in Leadership Putnam, I toured the Senior Citizen’s Center and observed an art class.  The teacher explained that everyone was working on paintings, using different types of media and different scenes.  “But we all work together here in the same room.”  My five-year-old Grand often asks to paint.  But she’s never worked on her paintings.  Why does she like to paint?  “It’s fun.  You can make anything you want,” she told me as she painted a bright red swirl across paper.  The art students at the Senior Citizen’s Center seemed to be having just as much fun.

Last week, I watched my three-year old Grand, at the Children’s Museum in the kitchen play area.  Her eyes wrinkled in concentration.  She filled a small shopping cart with plastic apples, celery, and green peppers.  She picked up a carrot, laid it down, and chose grapes.  Then she emptied the cart, placing her groceries in a small wooden refrigerator and in pots on a pretend stove.  When I said that we’d have to leave in about five minutes, she responded, “But, Gran, I’m not done playing.”  Somehow, I’ve never considered grocery shopping as play.

When my seven-year-old Grand wants to ride his bike in the woods beside our house, he clears a path.  He spends thirty minutes moving sticks and raking leaves to create a circular trail among the trees – all in the name of play – and another thirty minutes riding.  But he’s catching on.  When I suggest that he helps me pick up sticks in the yard, he’s quick to decide it’s time for him to go home.

Children play.  They arrange furniture, set a dinner table, and cook supper when they play house.  They ‘teach’ their dolls or pets or younger siblings how to say the alphabet.  They hammer and attach a bolt to a screw on kid-size workbenches.  They mold and create bowls and flowers with play dough and clay.  Using connecting blocks, they construct cars and airplanes and build fortresses and houses.

When does play become work?  When do we adults begin to describe what we do as work?  According to the Miriam-Webster dictionary, play is the state of being active or relevant and work is an activity in which one exerts strength to perform something.  Being active and exerting strength.  Being relevant and performing something.  Close enough to be the same for me.

I’d rather play than work.  So I’ll play when I cook supper and when I knit a scarf.  But I just don’t think I can play with an iron and ironing board.

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