In Praise of Play and Idle Time

Thursday, June 15, 2017 - 2:59 pm

In Praise of Play and Idle Time

You’ve probably heard the soul-crushing statistics about how often people who get caught up in the criminal justice system end up back in prison after release. This revolving door is particularly pernicious for young people. Within three years of release, nearly two-thirds of them reoffend.

So what does it take to help young people have a successful transition into the civilian world?

It’s a question that design firm IDEO and some visionary leaders with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation recently asked during an unusual collaboration. They talked to people currently in prison and those who had been out for a while about the resources and skills they felt that they needed most to stay out of prison.

Some of their ideas were unsurprising. They needed nurturing, unconditionally loving relationships — mentors and friends who would step in where family sometimes failed. They needed a way to set goals and keep track of their progress — some organized way to move forward with purpose and celebration. They needed housing and job prospects, of course.

But one of the things they expressed needing might come as a surprise; in order to successfully stay out of prison and rebuild their lives, they needed to learn how to have safe and legal fun. They needed to know how to fill their idle time, and right out of prison — as one might imagine — there is a lot of it. Particularly after being away from old friends and a beloved neighborhood for a while, it can be tempting to fall back into old habits and communities of belonging. But many times, as comforting and familiar as those spaces may feel, they can be dangerous ground for young people getting a second chance. The young men whom IDEO interviewed wanted to learn how to do photography, play the guitar, paint murals, even go hiking. The designers framed it as “positive play.”

Truth is, “positive play” is not just challenging or necessary for young people who have experienced jail time. All of us need healthy go-tos in times of emotional fragility or boredom. While as small children we have great instincts about how to fill our time (if given the time to fill, that is) with exuberant physicality and artistic creation and scientific exploration, it’s not long before we start reaching for numbing screens.

As insecure teenagers, idle time easily becomes testing ground. What we do with our time suddenly feels like a statement about our status in the world — are we theater geeks or cool jocks? Joiners or loners? Kids from elite backgrounds may appear to know how to engage in “positive play”; after all, their college CVs are filled with activities, but too often they are only stockpiling extracurriculars rather than learning how to be genuinely engaged with the world outside of classes. Those same kids can grow up to be adults who “work hard, play hard” — i.e. swinging perilously between workaholism and alcoholism. They’ve never learned how to de-accelerate and decompress, how to do something for the pure love of it rather than an external reward.

The adults I admire most in recent years are people who devote real time and energy to playing. They tend to be lifelong learners — finding new crafts and sports that they’re curious about and giving them a go. They let their curiosity, not their egos, lead — less attached to being “good” and more attached to having fun. They join nurturing communities centered around these activities — Carnivale dance crews and photography Slack channels and birding clubs. They spend significant time being restored by nature or prove incredibly resourceful teaching themselves things through YouTube. Some of them pick something and stick with it for years on end — becoming master weavers or beekeepers or low-rider car aficionados. Others flit around, going through seasons of excitement about a wider range of activities.

What unites these people is a sense of playfulness about their own identities and a creativity with which they approach their time. They know how to be alone. They learn something about themselves that those of us who endlessly complain about being “too busy” or go into autopilot when we’re off work, collapsing in front of the TV and drinking, do not. They have grounds for being proud of themselves, for surprising themselves, for growing and taking deep pleasure in something other than our modern false god: productivity.

Many of the guys that the IDEO designers interviewed told them that “idle time is the enemy.” Without the socialization or skills to fill our hours with play, there is a danger we will fill it with trouble or, less dramatic but still dangerous, fill it with, well, filler. We ostensibly go to sleep. Instead, when we play, we are awake — open to the full range of life’s pleasure and surprise.

People play baseball in Central Park in New York City.

People play baseball in Central Park in New York City. (Jewel Samad / Getty Images / © All Rights Reserved)

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is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at

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  • Gabby

    Indeed, our civic institutions do much better at providing such opportunities for children than for adults. It is a completely common thing, for example, for YMCAs and for schools to join to offer free after school enrichment programs for kids, for museums and zoo and musical venues to offer frequent opportunities for kids whose families cannot pay for these things, and for community centers to provide play spaces.
    Well off people with flexibility and time too can typically access a myriad of opportunities for enriching recreation without public intervention to facilitate it.
    And then there are poor people, or those who work three jobs to make ends meet and have no respite from child care or the care of elders, or who face health or mobility problems or other genuine barriers not faced by their privileged counterparts. I think for many people not finding much time for play or to learn new skills is not an indication that they do not value unencumbered time.
    I am grateful to volunteer weekly at a community center that offers creative and learning opportunities for adults in recovery from mental illness, addiction, trauma, and homelessness. Some members too have been part of the correctional system.
    Being able to explore interests and connect with others there is life-changing for so many of our members.

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