American adults have a love/hate relationship with fun. Blame our Puritan roots, or perhaps a series of historical events that have driven our work ethic to more rigid and aggressive depths, but Americans struggle between the extremes of 60, 70, 80-hour workweeks, and an obsession with “fun” distractions such TV, Facebook, alcohol, and exercise. Even our diversions are taken on as work. We don’t run for fun, we work out, measuring our steps, demanding a dedication and consistency equal to a full-time job in some other countries. We work some of the longest hours in the world, and then dedicate hours of what free time we have (after home chores and ferrying children to sports/after school events and helping with homework) to bingeing on the latest Netflix series, driven to keep up so that we don’t fall behind. And don’t forget the training session on “how to have fun” we are sometimes required to attend in our workplaces. Forced “fun” is the opposite of fun, and why do we need to teach it at all?
Some of our drive comes from actual pleasure in what we are doing, but some seems to be a reaction to, and informed by, a cultural attitude that fun is “bad” and any activity that is truly fun is valueless and self-indulgent. I’ve overheard adults disparaging other adults who spend too much time on recreation, while at the same time envying those who live in countries with shorter work weeks and more vacation time, where pleasure, recreation and fun are valued and supported.
This tension around fun is most pronounced in our attitudes toward children. Children are driven to play. And play is mostly fun. Children love to have fun and seek it out. It is a biological imperative and an elegant, effortless evolutionary feat that assures our big brains stay plastic, able to learn new skills, able to quickly adapt. Yet many adults seem to deeply resent children’s fun. Public education has stripped the school experience of recess, eliminating chances for kids to have fun. We pretend that making lessons or assignments “fun” is an adequate replacement for actual fun. Children can’t be loud or laugh or move with exuberance in most schools without getting in trouble and getting disciplined for it. No fun allowed. Because if you are having fun, you must not be learning. Or doing anything worthwhile.
I taught photography at an elite private high school for 16 years. The most disparaging thing other teachers could say of my classes was that the students loved them because they were fun. These educators dismissed the learning, accomplishments and growth that happened in those classes — my students won national awards, went on to excel in the arts in college and to have successful careers as artists and photographers. They also just enjoyed making art, just the act itself. My fellow teachers believed that the natural fun the students had was a “distraction” from more serious learning. The students, for the most part, loved my classes because they were fun. They had fun working in an environment of collaboration, creativity, freedom and exploration. And they had fun being challenged.
And this is where the confusion lies. We have lost a proper understanding of fun. Because something is fun, does not mean it is not challenging, important, or valuable. But in our culture, endeavors are often only valuable if they are work, and work is not and should not be fun, right?
Last week was our first week back at Houston Sudbury School. The students had so much FUN. They were loud, chatty, boisterous, laughed a lot, and played hard. A few times last week, I often wondered what an average adult might think walking into our school. I pictured the irritation they might feel at seeing kids being loud and active. The assumptions they might make about the value of the fun and whether learning is happening. And underneath it all, the resentment that our kids get to do what adults wish they could do: Have fun without shame. To do pleasurable or downright fun activities without having to “pay” for it with hours of drudgery, without having to earn it first. To experience the relief of not having to disguise fun as “work” but rather to experience the natural joy of doing something you find fun. Adults can learn a lot from kids who are allowed to be natural and to live fully, loudly and joyfully. I’m so grateful that as a Staff member at Houston Sudbury School I get to be with kids having fun every day.