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An essay by Hamilton Wright Mabie


Title:     Recreation
Author: Hamilton Wright Mabie [More Titles by Mabie]

There is a radical difference between relaxation and recreation. To relax is to unbend the bow, to diminish the tension, to lie fallow, to open the nature on all sides. Relaxation involves passivity; it is a negative condition so far as activity is concerned, although it is often a positive condition so far as growth is concerned. Recreation, on the other hand, involves activity, but activity along other lines than those of work. Froebel first clearly developed the educational significance and uses of play. Earlier thinkers and writers on education had seen that play is an important element in the unfolding of a child's nature, but Froebel discerned the psychology of play and showed how it may be utilised for educational purposes. His comments on this subject are full of significance: "The plays of the child contain the germ of the whole life that is to follow; for the man develops and manifests himself in play, and reveals the noblest aptitudes and the deepest elements of his being. ...The plays of childhood are the germinal leaves of all later life; for the whole man is developed and shown in these, in his tenderest dispositions, in his innermost tendencies." And one of Froebel's most intimate associates suggests another service of play, when he says: "It is like a fresh bath for the human soul when we dare to be children again with children." Play is the prelude to work, and stands in closest relation to it; it is the natural expression of the child's energy, as work is the natural expression of the man's energy. In play and through play the child develops the power that is in him, comes to knowledge of himself, and realises his relation with other children and with the world about him. In the free and unconscious pouring out of his vitality he secures for himself training, education, and growth.

The two instincts which impel the child to play are the craving for activity and the craving for joy. In a healthy child the vital energy rushes out with a fountain-like impetuosity and force; he does not take thought about what he shall do, for it is of very little consequence what he does so long as he is in motion. A boy, with the high spirits of perfect health, is, at times, an irresponsible force. He acts instinctively, not intelligently; and he acts under the pressure of a tremendous vitality, not as the result of design or conviction. The education of play is the more deep and fundamental because it is received in entire unconsciousness; like the landscape which sank into the soul of the boy blowing mimic hootings to the owls on the shore of Winander. The boy who has the supreme good fortune of physical, mental, and moral health often passes the invisible line between play and work without consciousness of the critical transition. In the life of a man so harmonious in nature and so fortunate in condition, work is a normal evolution of play; and the qualities which make play educational and vital give work its tone and temper. Activity and joy are not dissevered in such a normal unfolding of a man's life.

Now, play is as much a need of the man's nature as of the boy's, and if work is to keep its freshness of interest, its spontaneity, and its productiveness, it must retain the characteristics of play; it must have variety, unconsciousness of self, joy. Activity it cannot lose, but joy too often goes out of it. The fatal tendency to deadness, born of routine and repetition, overtakes the worker long before his force is spent, and blights his work by sapping its vitality. Real work always sinks its roots deep in a man's nature, and derives its life from the life of the man; when the vitality of the worker begins to subside, through fatigue, exhaustion of impulse, or loss of interest, the work ceases to be original, vital, and genuine. Whatever impairs the worker's vitality impairs his work. So close is the relation between the life of the artist and the life of his art that the stages of his decline are clearly marked in the record of his work. It is of the highest importance, therefore, that a man keep himself in the most highly vitalised condition for the sake of productiveness.

No one can keep in this condition without the rest which comes from self- forgetfulness and the refreshment which comes from joy; one can never lose the capacity for play without some sacrifice of the capacity for work. The man who never plays may not show any loss of energy, but he inevitably shows loss of power; he may continue to do a certain work with a certain efficiency, but he cannot give it breadth, freshness, spiritual significance. To give one's work these qualities one must withdraw from it at frequent intervals, and suffer the energies to play in other directions; one must not only diminish the tension and lessen the concentration of attention; one must go further and seek other objects of interest and other kinds of activity; and these objects and activities must be sought and pursued freely, joyfully, and in forgetfulness of self. The old delight of the playground must be called back by the man, and must be at the command of the man. The boy's play, in a real sense, creates the man; the man's play re-creates him by re-vitalising him, refreshing him and restoring to him that delight in activity for its own sake which is the evidence of fresh impulse.

This is the true meaning of recreation; it involves that spiritual recuperation and reinforcement which restore a man his original energy of impulse and action. Recreation is, therefore, not a luxury, but a necessity; not an indulgence, but a duty. When a man is out of health physically and neglects to take the precautions or remedies which his condition demands, he becomes, if he has intelligence, a suicide; for he deliberately throws his life away. In like manner, the man who destroys his freshness and force by making himself a slave to work and so transforming what ought to be a joy into a task, commits a grave offence against himself and society. The highest productivity will never be secured until the duty of recreation is set on the same plane with that of work, and the obligation to nourish one's life made as binding as the obligation to spend one's life.

How a man shall secure recreation and in what form he shall take it depends largely upon individual conditions. Mr. Gladstone found recreation not only in tree-cutting but in Homeric studies; Lord Salisbury finds it in chemistry; Washington found it in hunting; Wordsworth in walking; Carlyle in talking and smoking; Mr. Balfour finds it in golf, and Mr. Cleveland in fishing. Any pursuit or occupation which takes a man out of the atmosphere of his work-room and away from his work, gives him different interests, calls into activity different muscles or faculties, brings back the spirit of play, recalls the spontaneous and joyous mood, and re-creates through diversion, variety, and the appeal to another side of the nature. To work long and with cumulative power, one must play often and honestly; that is to say, one must play for the pure joy of it.

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Hamilton Wright Mabie's essay: Recreation