Work and Play

The Internet gives me two quotes from Mark Twain:

“Work and play are words used to describe the same thing under differing conditions.”


“Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do. Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.”

Actually, the Internet gives me lots more quotes about the importance of play, some of them by people, like Carl Jung and Jean Piaget, who were closely associated with the New Education Fellowship and the movement to introduce child-centred education. But it was the two from Mark Twain that caught my attention. I think they are linked, and I think they mean that we always know when we are working and when we are playing. Playing is when I decide what to do, and working is when somebody else decides what I should do.

But more importantly, we know when we are playing because no effort is too great when we are playing. I remember how surprised I was when I first found that out; there were literally some things that I could do when I was messing around with my friends after school, like climb a rope or vault a horse, which I was completely unable to do in the school gym under the expert supervision of a teacher. It took a great effort to transfer skills that I had learned in play into a work environment, but once you realise that that is what is needed, a number of things become clearer.

In the first place I decided that if ever I want to become a millionaire, I will devote myself to supplying a service that people need as part of their play, not as part of their work. Think of the resources that people will devote to their recreational activities, whether that is fishing, football or philately, and even some hobbies that do not begin with an “f”. And then think of the care with which they count the pennies when spending on the essentials of life – food and drink or work tools. And this distinction is not just about money. It also applies to effort. No effort is too great to learn about an engaging pastime, but at work…

In 1973 the International Labour Organization established Convention 138, which specifies a minimum age at which young people should be allowed to work. Since then it has been ratified by 166 countries, while only 19 have failed to ratify it. Work, especially work that is physically dangerous or involves long hours is specifically prohibited for young children, as of course it should be. I do not want to dwell on the question of child labour, which, in the West, we think of a scandal that belongs in history books. It remains a scandal, and it should certainly be consigned to history books, and I recognise the part that industrialised countries play in maintaining the practice through an insistence on cheap goods produced in low wage economies. All of that only serves to underline the fact that work is considered a necessary evil, and young children should be protected from it. What I want to look at is another side of the Convention.

Article 6 of the Convention begins, “This Convention does not apply to work done by children and young persons in schools for general, vocational or technical education or in other training institutions…” What this means is that children are protected from the necessity of working until the age of at least 15 (or in exceptional circumstances 14) unless that work is part of their education. And that raises the question of how much of a child’s education should be seen as work.

We have increasingly turned schooling into work for children. Schools are one of the few institutions in industrialised countries that are still organised on factory lines. Education is one of the few areas where Taylorism, or scientific management, dominate the way that we speak; “We need to make learning more efficient…”, “We need to ensure that children spend more time on task…”, and so on. And by insisting that there are excellent extrinsic motives for pursuing education (getting a better job, enjoying better health, earning more money – all of which are strongly correlated with more education) we reinforce the idea that learning is work for children, and we take away the intrinsic pleasure of learning through play.

I have heard politicians arguing that the idea of child-centred education is over, old-fashioned and passé. And I have heard teachers and educationists talking about education as if that were true. If that ever is the case, it will be a sad day for education, and a sad day for children, because it will mean that all children have been returned to the nightmare of child labour, which now only an unfortunate minority (though admittedly too many) suffer.

I think that I should just add what I am not arguing. I am definitely not arguing that learning through play is more efficient. What we need is less efficient schools and classrooms. What we need is more play, so that children can decide what they learn and how quickly.

Nor am I arguing that adults need to teach children how to play.  Adults have a very odd idea of what counts as play, as you will know if you go into a casino, where you will find hundreds of adults busy “playing”, all with set and humourless expressions determinedly working to get their money back. It is, as Mark Twain observed, impossible that play should be imposed on somebody else by any kind of compulsion.

What will happen if we release children form child labour and let them play? I have no idea. But what I do know is that it will not be limited by my, or any other adult’s, imagination.