Dear Wanderer

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When he was little, my brother had a habit of wandering off.  One time, he was playing cricket aged about 10.  The captain of his team had put him in the outfield – fine leg or somewhere similarly remote – right next to the boundary rope.  Adjacent to this particular cricket pitch was a copse.  And in the copse was a stream.  It was favourite place for children at the school to make dams.  My brother was one of the keenest dam builders.  And a less keen cricketer.  In an act of apparently insouciant disobedience, at the change of an over, he simply wandered off.  It was a telling comment on his contribution to the team that his absence was not noticed for some time.  However, when his escape was finally discovered, my brother was tracked down by the fearsome Mr Evans – and roundly reprimanded.  Not so much for his lack of team spirit – though this was of course the case – but for his disobedience.  Fancy wandering off like that?

In 1895, Annie Londonderry became the first woman to ride a bicycle around the world.  Back then, bikes were pretty uncomfortable.  What makes her story even more remarkable is that she’d hardly ever ridden a bike before she set off on a journey that took her across North America, Europe and Asia. She left behind her husband and three children to spend 15 months on the road in order to settle a wager between two rich Boston businessmen. Quite specifically, they wagered that no woman could cycle around the world in 15 months and earn $5,000 while doing so. Annie Londonderry proved them wrong.   She made money through advertising, attaching posters and banners to her bicycle.  Not only was she made of strong stuff physically, Annie Londonderry was an entrepreneurial, defiant, norm-breaker.  An icon of independence.  Fancy wandering off like that?

How to wander

Of course, I am not saying that children should be disobedient, wilful or disrespectful.  As a parent of three teenage children, there are moments when polite obedience seems a very attractive idea.  And as a school, we expect gentleness, courtesy and respect for others.  Equally, we don’t want our children to be meek, sheepish, cautious.  We want them to have some of the spirit and adventure of Annie Londonderry.  We want them to have confidence, purpose, energy.  Of course they can build dams – but not at the expense of the cricket team. 

We want them to develop resilience and resourcefulness.  These qualities also need to be tempered by softer values – kindness, appreciation of difference, playfulness, spirit. As I have always said, school should be serious fun. The past 18 months of restrictions to our freedom of movement have heightened – in many –  a wanderlust.  A desire to travel.  To wander off.  And we could all do with plenty of fun.

One of the great icons of serious fun is Albert Einstein.  A playful genius with a deep sense of humanity. He famously said:

“Life is like a bicycle. To keep your balance, you have to keep moving.” 

Across society, individuals, households, schools and organisations have had to show remarkable resilience and resourcefulness in dealing with the imbalances of recent times.  “You have to keep moving”. Resilience is when you have to ride your bike through a pot-hole or a puddle. Resourcefulness is when you find a way to swerve around the pot-hole. Both skills – and many others besides –  are needed in the journey of life.

The process of growing up is about developing ones sense of individual self and aligning this with a range of obligations and responsibilities to the world around us.   Each individual draws from, and contributes to, the community of which they are a valued part.  This school, in particular, champions the individual; we encourage originality and initiative; we want to see creativity and critical thinking.  Equally, we value community and participation, belonging and service to others.

We want them to be properly ready for life when they wander off from Senior School.

The wondering wandering of a parent

Turn now, dear wanderer, to one my favourite poems about parenthood.  It is a beautiful, short piece of verse by Robin Robertson.

Robin Robertson in ‘Swithering’

All parents know the feelings that come with checking on your sleeping child.  Particularly when they are babies.  You creep in and listen to their breathing.  In the silence, you imagine the private worlds of their dreaming.  Safe in their beds.  Protected from all the possibilities that lie ahead of them. 

Robertson’s poem is unashamedly sentimental – it tells us the gradual necessity of our children’s independence. They are meant to grow away from us.  This is not an act of disobedience, of course – it is an act of self-possession.  And the result of a job well done.

This slow and gentle unhinging of the parental heart is, of course, the whole point, indeed the aim of parenthood – and the endpoint of childhood. In the end, we want them to wander off like that.   But not too soon; not too quickly; and not before they’re ready.

Love – in all its many worded forms – is what powers parenting; and it is love that powers schools too. We act in loco parentis.  It is our job to help fill your children with confidence; to fire them up with love of learning, with the skills and aptitudes to lead happy and successful lives.  As Yeats so memorably put it: “Education is not the filling of buckets but the lighting of fires”.

Fancy racing off like that?

Take a look, dear wanderer, at this aerial shot of the start of the Third Form Race at the end of their first week at Shrewsbury.  I find it rather moving:

Third Form Race 2021

We can see a burst of colour; an explosion of forward-moving energy as they all set off together.  Fancy racing off like that?

You might be able to spot a figure in red lumbering along on the left hand side.  What a privilege it is to run alongside children for the five years of senior school; to be outrun by them – to see them find their stride.  

This photo is not just a record; it is a metaphor.  The sense of a journey begun.  Yes, it’s a race, but most importantly it was something we all did together.  Each child ran for themselves; but also for their house. 

You can glimpse the crowd support on the side-lines.  That’s the grown-ups – parents, family and staff.  There will be challenging moments along the way.  We work in partnership to help them; to find their balance when they wobble; to keep them moving.

The race is not ultimately about placings; it is about personal bests.  It is a race with oneself.  

And it is a wander, dear wanderer. 

It is a wander.


Adapted from an address to Third Form parents and pupils, Shrewsbury School Chapel, September 2021

Leo Winkley: Letters From Shrewsbury

Photo by Taryn Elliott on Pexels.com

Dear Gareth

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Written on the day of the Euro 2020 Final, 11 July 2021

I remember when we met in 2017. You kindly joined the Boarding Schools’ Association (BSA) Conference in York when I was Chair of the BSA. We did an ‘In Conversation’ session in front of an audience of boarding school headteachers. You took questions from the floor. You gave us 90 minutes of your time. Then you went to visit Martin House – the children’s hospice where my wife worked at the time – and spent the rest of the day with the families and staff there. You did it all for no fee and with the utmost of respect and attention to all those you met.

When we were ‘In Conversation’, you did not know that a journalist had found his way into the audience. You had spoken with candour and honesty about your own experiences of adversity; your insights into leadership; your sense that schools and football clubs have a lot in common. You spoke about mental health and the need to speak out and encourage dialogue, especially amongst boys and men. The reporter focused on your answer to a stray question about whether young footballers were paid too much. I’m still sorry today that we let that happen. You were noble in making light of it. However, I knew it had caused unwelcome noise. You rose above it. And your words had the insulating effect of integrity. And truth.

Thousands upon thousands of people have a Dear Gareth story. You have become an icon of leadership; a national treasure; a hero. The values you showed on that day in York have been on display, with unerring reliability, in recent months. No wonder so much has been written and said about you. Your virtues have been written large in the media. And rightly celebrated. Humility, integrity, honesty, compassion, care, endeavour, courage, spirit. The authenticity of your answers on that day in May 2017 was merely a snapshot. 90 minutes that showed the authenticity by which you live and work.

I’d like to add my letter to the pile, the mountain, of praise and appreciation. Not so much for what you have achieved – though your accomplishments are remarkable, proud and historic. This letter adds to the billions of words of admiration for the way you have gone about your work. The way you have lead; the values you have communicated; the template you have set for others; and the players you have inspired to be athletes on the pitch and activists off it.

This letter is written on the day of the final of the Euro 2020 competition. You have led the national men’s football team to a first major final since 1966. I don’t know who wins. I don’t know if it’s coming home…

What’s come home to me – as I have followed and admired your leadership, your work ethic and your communication – is the mighty power of sincerity. Whatever the result, these qualities (and many other things besides) make you a winner.

Gareth Southgate, In Conversation, at the BSA Heads’ Conference, York (May 2017)

LFS23

Dear Pedestrian

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Solvitur ambulando: ‘It is solved by walking.’

As a walker, you know this well.

This pithy saying – all the more pithy in Latin – is attributed to St Augustine.  It captures the sense that walking is more than just a physical activity.  Rather, it suggests that walking can be an act of mindfulness; a means of spiritual refreshment; a way of untangling the knots of the mind.  For many, walking and thinking are the closest of travelling companions.

I went through a phase of reading book after book about walking. It was in the aftermath of my father’s death in 2014.  I think, looking back, it was a way of reflecting on his life and its ending.  Big, long walks in the Yorkshire countryside were a way of processing.  I felt drawn to the paths of the East Yorkshire coast; it felt good to be small, yet strangely at home, in the rugged openness of the Moors; the gentle dales and valleys invited me to explore.  Following ancient ways – paths that had been covered by countless pairs of feet – connected me to the unknown folk who have lived and moved across the same land.   

When I wasn’t walking, I was thinking about walking.  I was reading about walking.  I read books by Robert Macfarlane, Roger Deakin, Henry David Thoreau, Frederic Gros, Rebecca Solnit, Geoff Nicholson, Nan Shephard, Patrick Leigh Fermor.  There are shelves of books on walking, natural history, landscape and language, psychogeography – all kept in our little cottage in the North York Moors.

Holloway

My inner teenager would be both baffled and appalled at this strange obsession with the act of walking.  How on earth can walking be interesting?  The Pavlovian response of most teenagers at the prospect of a long country walk is a derisory scoff or a spontaneous list of other more urgent priorities.  For some, walking looks like a waste of time and energy.  Especially the circular walk beloved of ramblers – why on earth would we walk in a big circle that ends up where we started? 

The word pedestrian (as an adjective) has a telling meaning: ‘prosaic, commonplace, dull’. Doesn’t that tell us something about the status of a walk?

Most prosaically, of course, walking is an act of locomotion; of self-propulsion; it is the simplest practice of getting from A to B.  It is a form of exercise and means of staying physically healthy.  More expansively, walking is a way to discover and explore the external world.  At a deeper level, walking can make us happier.     

Like many of the routine capacities that the fit and healthy take for granted, the able-bodied take the daily process of walking unthinkingly in our stride.  For those who find walking easy, we don’t often register that this unconscious process is supremely complex.  The ability to walk was hard-earned, and hard-learned, over months of early childhood development.  We learn to walk and are free.  Viewed this way, walking is a privilege.  More empoweringly conceived, it is an act of self-determination.  And a route to inner discovery.

You can see why slow self-locomotion seems ordinary next to the rapid movement of car, plane and rocket.  As the industrial revolution brought speed, along with so much else, shanks’ pony became equated with backwardness and poverty.

And yet… slow can be good.

View from Caer Caradoc

During lockdown, the daily walk has become disproportionately important.  For most, the local wander was the default leisure activity.  Ask someone what they did at the weekend during lockdown and they will almost certainly reference a walk.  Being pedestrian has been crucial to our wellbeing.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, pedestrianism was a spectator sport; an heroic activity that drew fans and inspired a degree of celebrity.  Walking was a means to epic feats and the focus of wild wagers.  For example, the legendary pedestrian Captain Robert Barclay Allardice’s most impressive achievement was to walk 1 mile every hour for 1000 consecutive hours between 1st and 12th July 1809.  People travelled to see him walk.  Many other men and women became competitive endurance or speed walkers.  Over time, this craze for pedestrianism gradually passed and became obsolete.  However, history shows that being a pedestrian was not always pedestrian.  

Returning to the current day, walking is a means of exercise and relaxation for many.  You come back from a decent walk feeling physically tired and mentally refreshed.  The quick wander with the dog; the late afternoon perambulation – these all help to dislodge the lumps in the mind’s path. 

I think it is one of the many uniquely special things about Shrewsbury School life that we – by which I mean pupils and staff alike – all do a lot of walking in our daily routines.  Our 100 acre site has walking designed into it. 

Shrewsbury School Site – walking to work

We have to walk from house to lessons; from one building to another; to and from meals.  We walk through a shared  place of calm, natural beauty. I think this is a very healthy thing for all of us.

Walking, woven into our daily routines, is good for the mind and the body.  And it can also help with problem-solving.

Whatever ‘it’ is – it may well be solved, or at least eased, by walking.

Keep walking, dear Pedestrian. 

‘Dear Mum and Dad’. On being fully present.

Dear Mum and Dad

Please don’t worry too much about what you might have heard about the fire at school. We’re all fine. And it was quite exciting with all the fire engines and confusion.

I did break my leg jumping out of the second floor window but the school nurse was very nice and the hospital is so close by, it wasn’t too painful walking there. They put a cast on after a few hours waiting and I’m fine now. The doctor said I should be back on games in a year or so.

My new boyfriend Jerry has been a great help. He’s one of the hospital porters and is previously married with two tiny children who are just lovely. So cute. He’s very keen to bring them down to meet the rest of our family before we make any further plans. I know you’ll like him.

I’d better go now – my room-mate Sally has made some friends from outside of school and we’re meeting them in the supermarket car park down the road. They sound really interesting.

I’ll call soon – hope you’re all well and the dog isn’t missing me too much.

Lots of love.

Becky.

PS.

None of the above is true.

What is true is that I think I’ve failed my English exam.

I just wanted you to keep a sense of proportion.

This letter, and versions of it, have been doing the rounds for a few years now. It’s a neat way of raising the question of how we keep things in perspective in our daily lives; how we maintain a healthy sense of proportion.

Parents want certain things for their children; we all have our goals, ambitions, and hopes. Each one of us lives with personal fears and none of us is free from problems. The very fact of being alive – that stuff happens to us as well as because of us – means that with the smooth comes the rough. You cannot have one without the other.

The fact is: everything matters. Details matter. The daily events and challenges, the problems and their solutions, these are the stuff of our daily existence. Under-performing in an exam is not what any of us want; failure matters. And, particularly in the happy absence of greater threats and worries, this is a big deal. The worries of tomorrow do have to be met. We should not respond by drifting off into a comforting netherworld of reassuring psychobabble or bury ourselves in distractions, worthy or otherwise. Nor is it productive to beat ourselves up mercilessly over our failures.

Each of us experiences different doses of rough and smooth through our lifetimes. There are common experiences – exam or interview nerves, pain, bereavement – but there is no sense that these are evenly distributed (far from it), nor that we each feel these human experiences in the same way. We hear news every day of fellow human beings far worse off than ourselves; people who would rightly be staggered at the smallness of our worries compared to relentless and fundamental sufferings that others endure day by day. And yet, for me at least, I’ve never found the point that there are plenty people worse off than me to be of that much comfort; nor that it could have been much worse if things had happened a little differently.

So, how might we get relief (if you’ll pardon the pun) from life’s ups and downs? How can we retain a healthy sense of perspective? Lots of wise things have been said by thinkers and writers over the ages on the question of staying happiness and wellbeing. In these rather gloomy January days, such questions may be even more pressing than in the lighter days of summer.

Some suggest that it is about taking time to step back from, perhaps to hover above, our problems. This elevation then gives the chance to consider the issue in the broader sweep of our lives. What looks like a big bump when viewed up close, diminishes when we widen the lens of perception. It’s still there, and needs to be clambered over, but when we then descend back to the present issue, we may feel it is less imposing.

A second suggestion is to lose ourselves for some time, and regularly, in the concerns of others. We tend to get mired in our own problems, turning inward and growing depressed and frustrated. Finding ways to serve and help others makes us feel better. Extending ourselves to others helps recalibrate our settings and refreshes our perspective.

Alan Watts, a British philosopher whose birthday it was yesterday, argued that the heart of the issue of perspective is to do with our desire for security and certainty. In his 1951 book, ‘The Wisdom of Insecurity’, he suggests that we misguidedly pursue certainty; but this is not an achievable aim. It also keeps us oscillating between an unsatisfying view of past and an insecure view of the future – neither of which provide a sense of wellbeing. As such, he says, we need to accept the fluid and unpredictable nature of things. Watts goes on to say that we are at our happiest when we are fully immersed in the present – rather than dwelling on the past or agonising about what lies ahead. We can take control of certain things (the revision for the English exam); other things happen to us (fires, floods, illness). But the thing which we can always reliably control is our attention to the present moment.

Watts wants us to put our full effort into the here and now. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t think about the future and respect and treasure the past. We each exist on a timeline and we do need to prepare for what lies further up the line. Rather, he suggests that the current moment is where our default setting should be. Being fully present – being concentrated on the task at hand – these are the times when we are most productive. When we are painting, or playing hockey, or solving a maths equation, or playing the oboe – we are not thinking, ‘I am playing the oboe’ or ‘i am solving this quadratic equation.’ We are what we are doing.

So, the third suggestion is that we should endeavour to be fully present in what we are doing. We should maximise the amount of our time we spend in this mode of full absorption. This is the state in which we are happiest; when the issue of proportion does not trouble us. And at the other times, the good and the not so good, when we stand back and take stock of the landscape of our lives, we need to keep a healthy sense of perspective. And, having taken a good look, we need to get back to the task at hand with our fullest and best attention.

Creating a happier world: The Dalai Lama @actionforhappiness

A long-held dream of mine is to meet the Dalai Lama. I have yet to realise it. Not fully anyway.

But, on Monday 21st September, World Peace Day, I was in the same room as him for two hours – along with 2,000 other people. The ‘Creating A Happier World’ event was held by Action For Happiness and top of a remarkable bill (including almost all of the leading names in the happiness movement) was the Dalai Lama.

The term ‘Dalai Lama’ means ‘ocean of wisdom’. He is the spiritual leader of Tibet – and was once the political leader too. Tibet no longer exists. Most (though not quite all) Tibetan Buddhists believe that the Dalai Lama is the 14th reincarnation of the Bodhisattva avalokiteshvara – god of compassion. A bodhisattva chooses to reborn, rather than escape the cycle of life (samsara), because of a deep compassion for all beings.

How did they identify Tenzin Gyatso, the current Dalai Lama, as the reincarnation? When the 13th died, he left indications of where he might be reborn, which triggered a search –The search party looked for signs: in dreams; in the direction of smoke emanating from the cremation of the 13th Dalai Lama; in visions seem in the holy lake, Lhamo Lhatso, in central Tibet.

Once they have identified the right area, they search to find boys born in right time frame; they present a number of artefacts which they have brought with them in preparation, to the child. Amongst these artefacts are a number of items that belonged to the deceased Dalai Lama. If the boy chooses the items that belonged to the previous Dalai Lama, this is seen as a sign, in conjunction with all of the other indications, that the boy is a reincarnation.

It took them 4 years to find Tenzin Gyatso. And the 14th Dalai Lama may be the final Dalai Lama. He has expressed doubts as to whether he will be reborn.

It is the effect of his life’s work that is of most profound interest to me. The Dalia Lama was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace for his non-violent position on the invasion of his former country; and for his unique brand of active compassion. His face, his image, is a near-universal icon of compassion and humanity.

It was moving to spend two hours in his presence; to listen to a being whose education, honed in the Tibetan monastic tradition from the age of 6, is rich and complex, and yet whose message is disarmingly simple.

It was hard to do anything other than listen, spellbound – but a few notes made it into my journal:

  • The power of a smile – how he entered the room of 2,000 people and someone managed to smile at each of the people gathered. “I lost my country. So I think, wherever people show me a smile: that is my country.”
  • His views of western education – “not adequate” – too much focus on exams not enough on the inner life
  • The value of moments of stillness – good for your own individual self; good for the happiness of others
  • That “most of our problems are because of old conception of ‘we and they’”– instead, we should emphasise connectedness and interdependence rather than differentness and distinctions
  • “Money [has] no ability to provide inner peace.”
  • “Material value [has] no possibility to provide us inner peace; only [the] compassionate mind is the only way to reduce anxiety and stress.”
  • “A compassionate heart is very important for our health.”
  • That we should be concerned with the happiness of others – and do something about it:
  • “If you want [a] better world, you have to work.”
  • “My responsibility is to talk – blah blah blah; you are implementing.
  • Encourage schools as communities to make a difference to the happiness of others

Two hours of intense listening to the gentle, loving, often playful wisdom of the Dalai Lama; two hours observing the simple power of human warmth from a being who may, or may not, be an enlightened reincarnation; two hours to reflect on the impact of compassion and how, in our own individual ways, we can create a happier world.

The Dalia Lama offered simple, universal, positive truths that transcend religious contexts. He is revered and respected – and loved – the world over not because of any notion of status but because of his extraordinary power to spread a message of compassion and empower others to create a happier world.

“Now – implement, implement, implement”.

Children’s Mental Health and Wellbeing – Prof Tanya Byron inspires and encourages St Peter’s York staff

“Kids should understand their brains; they should understand their whole bodies”.

So said Professor Tanya Byron, consultant clinical psychologist, as she gave an interactive presentation to the teaching and support staff at St Peter’s School, 3-18, the week before the pupils returned for the new academic year.

Professor Byron is a well-known broadcaster and columnist specialising in children’s mental health.   It turns out that she has a soft spot for York, having studied as an undergraduate at York University. So, despite her crammed diary, we were lucky in tempting her up to St Peter’s for an afternoon to talk to our teaching and support staff.

Tanya combines expert knowledge with unstuffy directness and a winning ability to take the stigma out of some very complex mental health issues. Despite the serious nature of her subject, her explanations are gloriously free from clinical pomposity; she connects brilliantly with people and she is not afraid to make jokes – particularly at her own expense. A published author, whose expert opinion is sought on myriad facets of parenting, Professor Byron told her audience that her children have promised her they will write a book on her. The working title? “Great with other people’s kids; sh*t with her own”.

Yes, she’s a straight-talking Professor. Disarmingly honest, likely to call a spade a spade (this goes down well in Yorkshire), Professor Byron encouraged colleagues working across the age range, from Nursery to Sixth Form, to talk openly about mental health concerns. Her talk addressed the psychology behind a wide range of issues and she went on to share various ideas on how to begin to address anxiety, depression, self-harm and eating disorders.

In her talk, Professor Byron described the children of 21st century Britain as “the most emotionally articulate generation of all” who are “better at asking for help” than any before. This is the good news – because the mental health issues they are facing are greater than ever before. “We need to understand the psychology of anxiety”, said Professor Byron, explaining that 75% of individual mental health issues will manifest when a person is between the ages of 14 and 23. She described the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) as being “in absolute crisis” and urged schools – particularly those with strong pastoral care such as independent boarding schools – to lead the way in preventing and managing mental health issues in the young.

In a balanced message, Professor Byron also warned against the “ridiculous over-protectiveness of our children” of which some parents are guilty, citing the effect that a risk-averse society has on children who “don’t know how to fail” and “lack emotional resilience”. She urged schools to encourage risk-taking (within sensible limits). “What child in their right mind is going to want to climb a tree that has been deemed safe?”, she quipped, and went on to celebrate the value of boredom – “It grows your imagination” – and the perils of over-praising children.

In just short of 90 minutes, Professor Byron gave us a “decatastrophised” but urgent message that the mental wellbeing of our children should be high up every school and every parent’s list of things to talk about – and that we need to get busy doing something about it.

Professor Tanya Byron spoke to 200 staff at St Peter's 3-18 on children's mental health

Professor Tanya Byron spoke to 200 staff at St Peter’s 3-18 on children’s mental health

Play Attention: playfulness and absorption in learning and living.

We must remember how to play.  So our Chaplain reminded us recently.  Total absorption in something fun – in play – is not only a good thing in itself, but play is also necessary for our well-being; play is refreshing and regenerative.

You sometimes hear people talking about ‘work-life balance’.  I have always felt this to be a rather negative & unhelpful polarisation: an unnecessary one.  The reason why I refer to school as “serious fun” is because, at best, our learning lives cater for the whole of our being.  We are not always serious, we are not always at play.  Each activity has the potentiality for the full richness of human emotions.

‘Work-life balance’ implies that the two are mutually exclusive.  Similarly, the saying that you should ‘work to live’ rather than ‘live to work’, makes the same category mistake.  Life, fun, work – surely, they should all be the same thing.  In other words, if you view life and work as part of the same whole thing, and you value play as part of work and life, there is now balance.  You are not creating a tension of opposites, but rather a forward-moving dynamic.  You are absorbed in the enjoyment of living and learning.  Forget work-life balance: live life to the full and aim to enjoy something about everything.

As children, we grow up playing and yet, gradually, the time given over to play slips away; bit by bit, the imaginative play gives way to increasingly formalised and regularised modes of play, for example, through individual and team sport.  Interesting that in many independent schools we talk about our sporting programme as ‘Games’.

I certainly don’t see a contradiction in the phrase ‘serious fun’.  At heart, all learning, all activity, should have a sense of play about it.  Certainly, some occasions and situations demand a sombre formality: Remembrance Sunday is not a moment for play.  But, most settings, even the serious, can benefit from the perspective and relief that comes from moments of playfulness.

Is there a difference between good play and bad play?  If so, what is it about good play that makes it good.  I’d like to suggest that good play is refreshing in some way.  Although it takes energy, it should also be generative.  If you play properly, it is enriching for all involved.  Play properly, I remember saying to a cousin who had stopped trying in a tennis match.  In order to give play true meaning and value, we have to take it seriously.

The Chaplain ruled activities such as computer-gaming as lower or lesser forms of play.  My instant response was to nod inwardly.  Hours of mindless semi-comatose button-pressing does not seem energising or enriching.  But when I see my son on Minecraft creative, I can see that it is a valuable mode of play.  Like most things, there is a law of diminishing returns – the longer you play on the same activity, without variation, the less playful it gets.  At the heart of play, then, is invention, imagination, creativity. And that is why play can, and indeed should, be part of learning.  Play isn’t something that can only happen in our free time; it can happen in more structured time, through our co-curricular activities, of course – this is want we might call formalised play; and it needs to happen in our learning.

Now, let’s be clear.  I’m not saying that the classroom or the lab are the same as the playground or our back gardens.  We all need to adopt a formal persona in the classroom.  We are working in a group, and group behaviour, led by an expert – ie a teacher – needs to follow formal patterns.  But, good teaching and learning allows space for the spirit of creativity and intellectual play.  All academic subjects have room for invention, for the absorption of play.

Over the holidays I read a book by Paul Dolan, a professor at LSE and government wellbeing advisor, called “Happiness By Design”.  Dolan’s central idea is that we are happy if and when we have a good mix of two key ingredients in life: pleasure and purpose.  Pleasure linked to purpose is the optimal source of happiness.  And much of our happiness and joy, or misery and anxiety, depends on what we choose to pay attention to.

“The “science of happiness” […]  is full of bizarre and contradictory findings. Parents report that parenting makes life much more meaningful, yet seem to experience no more pleasure than non-parents; more money doesn’t lead [automatically] to more happiness […]. One problem, he [Dolan] argues, is that psychologists simply try to find out which “inputs” – income, work, marital status, age, religiosity and so on – are correlated with the “output” of happiness. But in fact happiness also depends on how we allocate attention to those things. Imagine two biscuit factories, one run well, the other incompetently: they might have identical inputs (sugar, flour, labour, electricity) yet produce very different quantities of biscuits, depending on their production processes. The same goes for manufacturing happiness. Attention, Dolan writes, “acts as a production process that converts stimuli into happiness”. Attention is a scarce resource: give it to one thing, and by definition you can’t give it to something else. If you’re not as happy as you could be, “you must be misallocating your attention“.

“Even if it isn’t easy, Dolan makes a persuasive case that happiness might really be simple. His book is a powerful reminder not to get caught up in overthinking things, but to focus instead on maximising what actually delivers joy. [Dolan’s conclusion is that we should] “Listen more to your real feelings of happiness than to your reflections on how happy you think you are or ought to be.” Oliver Burkemann, Guardian.

This, to me at least, suggests that part of the key to deep happiness is in applying our attention actively and positive.  The Buddhists would call this ‘right mindfulness’, which is part of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path.  Whatever our activity, whether ‘work’ or ‘play’, it is full commitment and absorption that gives the activity real value.  It is the things to which we choose to give our full attention, are the things that will give us the truest rewards of happiness and purpose.  By this reckoning, we should pay attention to the things that give us purpose and pleasure; we should focus our attention on the pleasurable aspects inherent in all the tasks we are obliged to do.  And we must learn playfully and play seriously.  And, whatever we are doing, we should pay attention.