Yesterday was the first session of the seminar I teach on “Philosophical Inquiry in Schools” at the University of Washington. As part of the session, I read the Arnold Lobel Frog and Toad story, “The Garden,” to the students. In the story, Toad admires Frog’s garden and Frog tells him that it was hard work. Toad says that he wishes he had a garden and Frog gives him some flower seeds. Toad plants the seeds and tells them to grow, but they do not immediately start growing. Toad goes to great lengths to get the seeds to grow, shouting at them and then, after Frog tells him the seeds are afraid to grow because Toad is shouting, Toad reads a story to the seeds, sings to them, reads poems to them, and plays music for the seeds. Tired, Toad falls asleep, and when he wakes up he sees that small plants are emerging. “You were right, Frog,” Toad says. “It was very hard work.”

The story led to questions, among others, about how to know when to accept that we have no control versus when to try to influence an outcome, why we are always tempted to do something rather than nothing, whether an activity can still be hard work even though it was unnecessary, and the meaning of patience. We began discussing how to know when we should accept that we have no control over something. We talked about the benefits of acknowledging a lack of control and letting go of the need to try to do something, but we also observed that sometimes a determination that you have no control can be a way of avoiding responsibility for trying to improve a bad situation. This led to wondering whether, if you have no control over a choice or circumstance, you can still be held responsible for it.

The thread of the conversation then moved to thinking about what it means to “do nothing,” and what we mean when we say we are doing nothing. The phrase generally seems to describe spending time in a way that is unproductive. One student observed that when she spends time in this way — scrolling through social media feeds, or watching tv that doesn’t really interest her — she feels lazy. Another student objected to characterizing this behavior as “lazy,” noting that after a long day this can be a form of relaxation, and that “lazy” is a negative label. We talked about the difference between spending time that in ways that are unproductive and doing things that are unintentional (“mindless scrolling,” for example, as one student put it).

We discussed the cult of productivity in our culture, where people are constantly expressing how busy they are and feeling as if all their time should be goal-focused, and whether this is a healthy way to live. We explored what it means to be lazy. Could a celebration of laziness be an antidote to the intense productivity pressures many people face? One student pointed out that laziness can be a positive attribute, and contrasted it with slothfulness, which he noted is one of the seven deadly sins. We then began thinking about the ways that schools contribute to a culture focused on productivity, with children learning over time that spending time playing and daydreaming is not the right way to live. What is the relationship between play and productive activity? Is a healthy balance between the two possible?

And all this from a 12-page picture book story.

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