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The Serious Business of Fun

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Victorian parents and teachers have often been criticized for treating children as though they were little adults. The period's keenest social critic, Charles Dickens, satirized this ignorance in a collection of brilliant caricatures of schoolmasters and parents ranging from Mr. Creakle, the vicious proprietor of David Copperfield's Salem House, to Mr. Gradgrind, whose merciless doctrine of "hard work" and no play spoke for a culture which would have considered my school's developmental philosophy an abomination.

Recently I have been thinking a lot about work and play and the role of fun in the lives of children and adults. No doubt this philosophical preoccupation can be explained largely by the fact that after 21 consecutive years as a school principal I have embarked upon a six-month sabbatical. But it is also the result of intensive consideration of my current school's "mission statement" as we prepare for our impending 10-year accreditation.

Although a final version of the statement has yet to be approved by our board, one theme has emerged forcefully from discussions with teachers, parents, and trustees: Everyone agrees that we need to reiterate the importance of "childhood as an end in itself," a concept eliminated from our mission statement in the 1950's.

This is what the notion looked like in our institutional statement of purpose more than 50 years ago:

"In agreement with modern psychology, the school believes that childhood is not solely a preparation for adult life; it is in itself an integral part of life and is to be lived fully and happily."

Dickens, denied much of his own childhood, would applaud. So, presumably, would Michel de Montaigne, whose famous assertion--"The games of children are their most serious business"--is echoed centuries later in the modern developmental psychologist's claim that "a child must play fully if he is to develop fully."

To this mix of philosophers and social critics I want to add a surprising contemporary voice: the voice of John Starks, the unpredictable point guard of the New York Knicks. In early December, saluting the relatively relaxed attitude of his new coach, Mr. Starks announced to reporters, "Basketball is supposed to be fun." Whether he had recently been reading Dickens or Montaigne I don't know, but his observation set me to thinking. Specifically, it set me to thinking about the complex relationship between hard work and fun, the significance of "play" in children's and in grown-ups' lives, and the importance of never forgetting the ways in which children and adults are developmentally different.

Mr. Starks and his extraordinarily gifted professional colleagues surely experience little, if any, fun in their "play." Last year, one of my school's recent graduates (just named the Most Valuable Player in professional baseball's American League) told me, "You're only as good as your next at-bat." Watching the ferocious intensity on Mo Vaughn's face as he settles into the batter's box, I cannot help but remember the goofy nonchalance he displayed in similar circumstances when, as a preadolescent known to us all as "Maurice," he donned the blue-and-white uniform of our school.

This young man's sea change in the batter's box has taught me to paraphrase Montaigne for the 1990's: "The games of adults are their most serious business." By the way, the same New York Times page that carried Mr. Starks' cheery assertion that his game should be fun simultaneously reported that a cross-Hudson rival had just rejected a contract from the New Jersey Nets offering annual compensation in the "five- to six-million-dollar range." Sounds serious to me.

Still, at least for children, games (and all other "play," formal and informal) balance the hard work with fun. Winning and individual brilliance may matter in certain segments of the adult world, but they are not what is most significant in the world of children and schools. (I confess it is easy to assert this when three of our four fall varsity teams completed undefeated seasons.)

On the athletic field, in the classroom, on every stage, what is most important for children is a healthy balance of work and play. It is that balance which best prepares them for the rigorous competition of the adult world that awaits them in the 21st century. Dickens and Montaigne understood that a long time ago.

Selfishly, I can't help but wonder what awaits me, as I abandon the predictable rhythm of the academic year for the first time since my parents deposited me at the Monica Ros Nursery School in 1949. One thing I don't need an old cracker-barrel philosopher like John Starks to tell me: Sabbaticals are supposed to be fun.

Nicholas S. Thacher is the headmaster of New Canaan Country School, New Canaan, Conn.

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