In an upcoming 2015 documentary called The Land, Vermont filmmaker Erin Davis is capturing the nature of play and risk-taking on an unusual playground in North Wales. The one-acre plot of vacant property, called “The Land,” is known as an “adventure playground,” which allows children of all ages the free space to roll down hills in old tires, to light fires in rusty oil drums, and build forts in trees with hammers and nails. As for parental guidance, there is very little. On staff at the playground are “playworkers,” who are there mainly to “loiter with intent”—they do not intervene in the children’s play except if there is an accident that needs attention.
The funny thing? Besides minor cuts and bruises, there have been zero major accidents. Although kids have all the necessary means to harm themselves or one another, the “risk assessment benefits” have heavily outweighed the harm. The Atlantic ran a feature on this playground, in an analysis of the kind of “adventure” today’s kids (and today’s parents) are generally used to. The article looks into a study done by child psychologist Roger Hart in a small town in New England in 1974 where, over the span of a year, he mapped the various hiding spots and secret passages of the children of the town. He found that, for children in second and third grade, their sense of unsupervised “free range” had greatly expanded throughout their neighborhoods, and by fifth grade, it was virtually infinite.
Hart re-visited the study in 2004, when the children he studied had had children of their own. What he found was a dramatic if unsurprising shift: Despite the fact that crime had not increased at all, the children of the next generation had close to no “free range” beyond their own backyard. As Hanna Rosin writes, parents today seem to be enveloped with the largely irrational fear that their children are lost without them:
One common concern of parents these days is that children grow up too fast. But sometimes it seems as if children don’t get the space to grow up at all; they just become adept at mimicking the habits of adulthood.
This trend in parental overinvolvement is just the tip of the iceberg, though. It is just one of many ways we are culturally blurring the lines between work and play. Beyond the playground, leisure in general has become big business: just this year, ESPN, the Worldwide Leader in Sports, surpassed $50 billion in net worth, and brought in three times more money than network giant CBS. Despite this, though, numbers for actual youth sports leagues is down nationwide. Other ‘recreation’ outfits, like CrossFit and SoulCycle, have turned physical fitness into a pseudo-spiritual discipline. One of CrossFit’s famous mantras is: “Think of your workouts as important meetings you’ve scheduled with yourself. Bosses don’t cancel.”
But the blur is happening in the other direction, too. As much as play is morphing into work, our workdays are slowly morphing into times when we can ‘play.’ Portlandia has become the noteworthy satire of this growing trend where, along with the West Coast shtick for alt-rock and graphic Ts, offices have become jungle gyms for adults. Corporate policy now makes room for foosball tables and freeze-tag, not to mention free lunches and in-office masseuses. And on top of all this, technology has provided us the accessibility of leisure anywhere, with streamable videos and downloadable podcasts. During March Madness, you can actually click a “Boss” button to turn your streaming game center back into a productive workstation again—not that your boss would mind anyway! We no longer have to wait, like drones in an assembly line, for the last punch of our day’s timecard. We can play now.
And so it’s all a little bit confusing. In a world where parents ferry their children to and fro, chaperoning play dates and supervising music lessons; in a job market that provides more paid vacations and promotes staff yoga courses, what really constitutes ‘play’? Likewise, in an age when work e-mail is accessible at all hours of the night and web promotions and social media distractions are readily available during all hours of the day, what categories define the term we know as ‘work’? As Jonathan Crary says in his book 24/7, our new normal seems to be the always-on paradigm of activity:
[We] esteem the individual who is constantly engaged, interfacing, interacting, communicating, responding, or processing within some telematic milieu…In their connectionist paradigm, the highest premium is placed on activity for its own sake, “To always be doing something, to move, to change—this is what enjoys prestige, as against stability, which is often synonymous with inaction.”
The Bible speaks of this strange tension between work and play. In fact, the Bible shows that it has always been a problem for us, to know when to stop working. God’s creation ends with a rest from work. When God issues his ten decrees from Sinai, one of them is to “remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.” But Jesus, being the great sabbath-breaking ‘Lord of the Sabbath’, sees a different dynamic at play. He says to the Pharisees, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath.” It wasn’t just that people don’t rest, it was that even in rest people find ways to work out their own righteousness.
At other times, Jesus calls children forward, lauding them as the only ones to whom the Kingdom of God belongs. And yet only with children do we find a misapprehension of work in life. Only in child’s play is there a real distinction between freedom and demand, risk and self-preservation, love and logic. Could this possibly be what Jesus means about being born again? To once again enter the world of childish trust and wonder? For the strung-out and overwhelmed worker, how does this truth not feel like one more impossible feat to bear out?
This is what we’re looking into in this, the Work and Play Issue. We have interviews with best-selling time-researcher (and working mother), Brigid Schulte, as well as the Nigerian theologian of play, Nimi Wariboko. We’re covering a wide variety of topics, from freemium gamers and Fitbit philosophy, to happy jobs and Las Vegas tragedies. There’s an essay on the real meaning of sabbath, and a self-improvement sermon against self-improvement. We also have two new works from the matchless poet Mark Jarman—too much to name, really. In all of these, though, a common (albeit blurry!) thread remains: one that marks out workweek from weekend, the world of demand from the world of freedom. Along this boundary lie much of the world’s troubles, but also its hope, for a little bit of thought, and a lot bit of tomfoolery.