Friday, June 10, 2011

Running in the Sprinkler

The other day my husband was out watering the lawn, and my son was getting restless, like he does. Rather than throw some toys, I brought him outside to “see what Daddy’s doing.” Daddy had the arch sprinkler going, and Silas walked out to it slowly, investigating it. He finally got close enough to touch the arch when it was over to his right, but eventually it was straight up and raining on him. He laughed, and ran away. I thought, “Ok, we’re done with that.” But he went back and touched the spraying water again until it rained on him, and ran away again. He did this until he was soaked – hair, shorts, feet, diaper, soaked. And he was having a ball, laughing every time. I just watched and shook my head. But a small part of me wished that I could do the same (well not the diaper part).

As adults, we’re missing something. We’re missing the small things in life and the enjoyment we can get from them. We’ve stopped checking out the new things just to see what they do to us (and going back for more). Don Lucas, a colleague of mine at Northwest Vista College, talks about this in terms of why we do things. My son was doing this for the pure enjoyment of the thing, or what Lucas (2010) describes as an endotelic reason. He wasn’t cajoled into doing it by us, he wasn’t required to do it for work, he was simply…playing.

When was the last time that you did something simply for the enjoyment of it? You may be able to think of something easily but let me ask you, really, were you doing it for enjoyment? My husband plays video games. He keeps playing some of them because he wants to beat the game, that’s his goal. That’s not a “just for fun” reason. If I read a book to review for a blog, I’m not doing it just for fun. I have a goal that I’m trying to reach. If I knit a blanket for a friend’s new baby, again, I have a goal. While we may enjoy what we’re doing, after a while it may feel like a chore because really we’re working toward a goal rather than simply enjoying the pleasure we feel from doing something we enjoy.

Kids do these types of things all the time – they investigate stuff, they have no goal or agenda, they just play (especially when we’re talking about solitary play). They can spend a good part of their day just investigating and learning “what does this do? How does it work?” if we let them. So when do we lose this? When do we lose this interest in just learning to learn and playing to play? Typically? When we start school, sadly. At school there are goals, there are tests, there are all sorts of outside reinforcers that influence us to behave in certain ways. Once we internalize this idea of feeling good about accomplishing a goal, then it’s possibly all over for the endotelic “just for play” activities. Because then everything has a reason. Everything has an end or a goal that we’re trying to reach.

A lot of times I find myself trying to direct my son’s play, trying to set goals for him. “Let’s play with this shape sorter” (so we can learn shapes, colors, and practice your fine motor skills). After a few minutes of me “helping,” he loses interest. But if I leave him to his own devices, he’ll play with the shapes and investigate where they fit and what fits in the sorter (Daddy’s keys?) until I interrupt him for something else. But because I’ve gone to school, because I’ve “turned adult” and can’t do anything just for fun anymore, I feel badly leaving him to play alone or undirected. It’s the same way I feel when I sit down to watch TV for a little bit (my own version of undirected play). I feel like I’m not accomplishing anything.

So after observing my son’s behavior and thinking about this for a bit, my husband and I were outside watching the sprinkler right before bed. “Let’s run through the sprinkler,” I dared. He looked at me, concerned. “Why? Are you hot?” He asked. “No, just because. Come on.” After some cajoling and me telling him I would beat him to the other side of the lawn, he agreed. He apparently did not see the value in simply running through the sprinkler – he needed a reason (to beat me across the lawn).

We ran through the sprinkler, and I slipped and my $50 canvas shoes got covered in mud (says the adult). Who cares, says the little kid in me who wishes we could do this more often (and not feel the need to cajole Mike into it too). Shoes wash off (which they did). But can we really enjoy a life where we’re doing things to reach some goal rather than just to enjoy them?