CYC-Online 38 MARCH 2002
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from the soapbox

Life line, life work: How play and relationship empower our work

Karen vanderVen

The recent emphasis on “strengths” and “assets” approaches in child and youth work suggests that we’re doing much more than formerly to consider what we’re really about and striving to attain in child and youth work: positive developmental outcomes for children and youth. These advances actually serve as a springboard this month to bring up four of my very favorite soapbox topics:

Now, there are a few new studies of populations at the other end of the age spectrum that show how important some of the hallmarks of child and youth care can be to help our clients grow into a productive adulthood and even old age. What can be more empowering to our sense of the contribution our work can make?

Let’s consider, first of all, “the Nun Study” (Snowdon, 2001) whose stunning finds actually gave it considerable publicity in the mass media. A group of nuns were studied intensively to determine what factors were related to mental vitality and longevity in old age. Those who lived the longest and the most meaningfully had in their youth expressed themselves in more complex and detailed language, and early on held a “positive outlook towards life” as expressed in youthful writings. We know that relationships are fundamental in early development and that rich, expressive language develops in the context of relationships where there is substantial verbal exchange. So in the case of those children with whom we form attentive and nurturing relationships and engage in mutual communication, we may be laying down both the expressive language and positive outlook that can equip them for their entire lifetime.

Then, let’s consider the findings reported by George Vaillant in Aging Well (2002, p. 229). In this empirical research on a large study population, Vaillant found that those who “aged successfully” and had positive mental health were able to play “... as well as any red-blooded kitten!” “What is important” he says, “is being able to live life fully and that in many ways is achieved through play...” Vaillant is referring to interests that are not necessarily work or career related ... hobbies, sports, art, music, writing. They make aging meaningful and contribute to mental, even physical, health. So, when we encourage play and activity involvement with children and youth, again, we are equipping them with important possessions to be carried forth to enhance their more mature years.

Thus the findings of the two studies collectively suggest that what we do with young people is not just terminal in its results, but rather sets in motion a developmental trajectory that continues throughout life. The studies affirm the core nature of our work: to develop caring relationships and to offer a rich diet of play and activity in the context of these relationships. This way, we help all of the children and youth we care for not only move successfully into late adolescence and young adulthood, but also to have the “psychological groundwork” for a productive and happy adulthood and old age.

The findings support the notion that our special work, delivered through relationship and activity, might continue to expand, offering these to people who need them throughout their lives. Indeed, life long play, activity and relationship is a life line and we have a growing role to play in providing it.


Snowdon, D. (2001). Aging with grace. What the nun study teaches about leading longer, healthier, and more meaningful lives. New York: Bantam

Vaillant, G. (2002). Aging well. Surprising guideposts to a happier life from the landmark Harvard study of adult development. Boston: Little Brown

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