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Too Cool to Play? Resisting the Pressure to “Grow Up”

Written by Phil Mayhoffer

Before joining Creative Learning Systems, I taught STEM at a private middle school. I know, popular media often portrays middle school as “the worst years of my life,” filled with embarrassing physical, social, and emotional changes. But in reality, the middle school years are filled with exciting opportunities for significant growth.

In addition to teaching, I served as the school’s Student Council Advisor, which allowed me to supervise a fantastic group of young leaders. Each year, I joined them on their annual trip to the LEAD Conference where council members and other students gathered to develop leadership qualities and network with other young leaders from across the United States.

I specifically remember Joe Fingerhut’s “Permission to Play” session. He shared that when we grant ourselves permission to play, it can open doors to a more engaging and enjoyable life. In his book of the same title, he discusses that growing older doesn’t necessarily mean having to grow up. Instead, Fingerhut pursued his passion for fun and play rather letting society’s expectations overshadow his interests. Now, he regularly incorporates juggling—a skill he learned as a counselor at a circus camp—into his keynotes and sessions that he gives around the world.

Fingerhut’s story reminded me of a similar leadership conference I attended in high school. I had just “survived” those middle school years and was trying to figure out who I was in high school and how I could be as cool as the other kids. Then the keynote speaker, Mark Scharenbroich, shared a story that’s stuck with me.

Scharenbroich recalled his time as an elementary student and those back-to-school supplies—especially the crayons. Inevitably, some lucky kids got the super-mega pack of Crayola Crayons—you know, with the sharpener in the back of the box. But for Scharenbroich, all he could have was the smallest pack of generic crayons. 

As he wove his story, Scharenbroich reminded me that comparing yourself with others simply has a negative impact on your mental state. Instead, he reminded us to “Stop counting crayons. Just draw pictures.”

Whether it’s from societal perceptions of value or social impressions from peers, young people are often pressured to leave childish things behind so they can fit in and be “cool.” Instead, perhaps we encourage students to take a cue from Fingerhut: Follow your passion and give yourself “permission to play” while, as Scharenbroich counsels, “just drawing pictures” rather than worrying about what others are doing. 

Upcoming Topic

  • Staying Young Through Lifelong Play
Phil Mayhoffer
Phil Mayhoffer

Phil Mayhoffer loves to explore how creativity, curiosity, and play interact throughout the process of learning. As a middle school teacher for four years, he dove into design thinking and project-based learning to make his classroom a place to foster and support innovation in his students. He believes that one of the primary purposes of our existence is to learn how to create and thereby contribute to the beauty of the world around us. Phil strives to weave that purpose into the work he does by setting the stage for rich learning experiences that harness the power of play and empower learners to make a difference.

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When the team at Jewell Houston Academy, a magnet school in Texas, looked for a STEM program, they wanted one that would not only engage students in STEM careers but could also teach conflict-resolution, problem-solving, collaboration, and communication skills.

Read about how the SmartLab HQ impacted both learners and enrollment.