Shore Leave, the fifteenth episode of Star Trek, is an interesting one. On one hand, it’s not a particularly strong episode, nor is it very well remembered, and in the realm of the overall Trek universe it carries very little weight. On the other hand, the episode boasts a script written by legendary science fiction writer, Theodore Sturgeon, and, as Zach Handlen of the A.V. Club points out, the episode “is a lot of fun, campy enough that you can overlook some of the sillier plot elements, and with a strong hook to keep the camp from descending into self-parody.”
Shore Leave sees the crew of the Enterprise taking some time to relax and allow for a “shore-leave” on a seemingly unassuming and pleasant planet in the Omicron Delta system. Not long after members of the crew begin to beam down to the planet’s surface, ensuing hijinks and wackery prove that the planet is truly far from unassuming and pleasant. Dr. McCoy encounters an anthropomorphic white rabbit (and then Alice from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland not long after), Sulu finds an antique revolver and is then attacked by a samurai, Yeoman Tonia Barrows is harassed by Don Juan, and Kirk fights a cocky Irishman (and rips his shirt in the process).
Needless to say, the crew comes across some odd stuff. As they put the conflicting pieces together and ultimately come across the enigmatic “caretaker” (portrayed by Oliver McGowan) of the planet, it’s revealed that the planet is actually a complex amusement park. By design, visiting parties to the planet can create interactive illusions – which are temporary and not harmful – through their own thoughts.
In writing the script for this episode, Theodore Sturgeon hoped to convey the idea that fantasy can be an important component for relaxation. While some of his more outlandish ideas were trimmed out, much of the core fantastic elements remained, much to the dismay of the network who feared the episode would be too surreal for television. Even though much of what the crew experiences is far from relaxing, I believe Sturgeon’s goal was made evident most brilliantly through one of Kirk’s lines towards the end of the episode: “The more complex the mind, the greater the need for the simplicity of play.”
The importance of play for children as they grow and develop has been recognized across multiple disciplines and looked at through countless studies. From a medical perspective, pediatricians recognize that, “play is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth,” (source: Kenneth R. Ginsburg – The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds from the official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics). In the realm of education, the National Association for the Education of Young Children has put together countless resources detailing the importance of play as it relates to a child’s learning. Finland, a country heralded for its education system, gives students 15 minute breaks to go outside, socialize and play, for every 45 minutes of instruction (for more on this, see Timothy D. Walker’s piece, How Finland Keeps Kids Focused Through Free Play).
Despite the growing body of evidence and consensus surrounding the importance of play, it seems educational policy has not taken all that into account. In 1981, students aged 6-12 had on average 57 hours of unstructured free time per week. By 2003, that number has shrunk to about 48 hours per week (source: Stephanie Pappas – As Schools Cut Recess, Kids’ Learning Will Suffer, Experts Say). Furthermore, according to a 2007 Center on Education Policy study, since the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001, 20% of districts reported decreasing recess time (as well as other content areas) in favor of increasing time for English/language arts and mathematics.
With all of this, I’m drawn back to Captain Kirk’s words at the end of Shore Leave, “the more complex the mind, the greater the need for the simplicity of play.” It appears that in the current climate of education we are asking our kids to demonstrate greater complexity of the mind, yet at the same time diminishing their time to play and explore.
Increased rigor and academics for students in our education system is by no means an inherently negative thing. Many may see this as the problem, but I’d argue that it isn’t the sole issue. The true problem is the lack of balance that comes when we ask our children to do more. As mentioned above, the more complex concepts we ask our younger students to understand, the greater the need for them to balance this out with free play and/or exploration.
There is a place for regimented academics and structure, but there is also a strong need to counterbalance these with a place for our senses of curiosity, wonder, and exploration to be allowed to flourish. This can take the form of time to play; to relax the mind and to simply have fun. In another sense, this could also be time to let creativity flourish through exploration and experimentation – a safe space for kids where they can apply the knowledge they’ve attained through academics to problems they want to solve, and a safe space for them to not only find success but fail and try again as well.
All of this, while incredibly important in the development of children, can be just as beneficial to adults as well. Bruce Nussbaum, author of the book, Creative Intelligence, argues that by creating a space for people to interact outside of the structures and norms of the regular day, overall creative capabilities will increase. Further, sculptor Richard Serra, through his article, Life’s Work, for the Harvard Business Review, points out that, “in play you don’t foresee an end product. It allows you to suspend judgment. Often the solution to one problem sparks a possibility for another set of problems.” In other words, by giving ourselves time to play, we have the potential to find solutions and questions to problems we may never have even considered otherwise.
While structured and academic rigor may give us the tools and resources needed to solve problems and learn in a basic sense, it’s the free time to play and explore that really takes this to the next level and allows room for real world application and higher levels of thinking. It is in this realm, I believe, that our minds will take the steps to potentially attain the world we see in Gene Roddenberry’s vision of Star Trek.