As a concept, play can feel fuzzy, or idyllic, bringing up visions of clambering through open fields or shooting marbles, 1950s style, in someone’s backyard. The idea has often been connected to a happy childhood, as if childhood and play are completely intertwined. For adults, play brings up visions of the World Cup, or the Olympics, or a pickup basketball game. Play is something we do when we’re done with work, to have fun and release stress: that’s how the old thinking went.
Yet recent research suggests play isn’t only essential to the development of children’s brains; it’s also one of the most powerful ways to help them gain knowledge about the world. When children engage in free play — that is, play without pre-structured rules — and negotiate complex social interactions, the brain builds new circuits in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that supports planning and impulse control. Free play helps children figure out what the rules should be and how to make strategic decisions, whether it’s about how to build a boat out of sticks or how to compromise when there are two of them and only one Elmo doll.
play is something we do for its own sake, an activity -- whether chess or gardening -- that allows us to lose track of time and feel engaged.
Indeed, early experiences can shift pathways in children’s minds for good or ill. On the negative side, the theory of “toxic stress,” coined by Harvard professor Dr. Jack Shonkoff, argues that chronic stress can actually change the way a child’s brain works, putting her on permanent high alert. In contrast, experiences of play and engagement open new neural pathways that, with time and practice, can solidify. In laying the foundation of a child’s development, every chance for free play adds a brick.
Even more, new studies suggest that “adults need recess too.” According to Dr. Stuart Brown, head of the nonprofit National Institute for Play, play is something we do for its own sake, an activity — whether chess or gardening — that allows us to lose track of time and feel engaged. In playing, we find a sense of freedom, lightness, and “flow.” Such play has been found to have cognitive benefits, helping us maintain memory skills and mental sharpness as we age, and of course allowing us to beat isolation and socialize.
These days, play has entered the workplace, and more than as simply a sideline activity. Even Google has it game rooms for workers, and many companies have started regular “game nights” or even installing rooms filled with plastic balls for workers on their off-times to jump around in. But does this make sense? Why the interest in play? What is it, and why does it matter for children, and for parents especially?
As far as we can tell, play has been a part of nearly every society we can study. In an article in the American Journal of Play, developmental psychologist Dr. Peter Gray argues that play has far greater implications than simply allowing individuals to have fun. Rather, in evolutionary terms, play likely evolved as a way of helping societies collaborate and reducing the aggression inherent to different competing groups. As he argues, “it may not be too much of a stretch to suggest that the selfish actions that led to the recent economic collapse are, in part, symptoms of a society that has forgotten how to play.”
we also need a shift in mindset, moving away from thinking of play as something we sign up for and towards the idea of it happening spontaneously...
Playing with blocks doesn’t immediately bring to mind the G8 Summit, but perhaps the links aren’t so far fetched. When we’re trying to solve a complex problem or negotiate, we need to think from multiple perspectives, try out possible solutions and be willing to have our initial solutions fail. We also need to use language, at times in quite subtle ways, to convince one another of the value of an idea, or even to express what we mean. While our ideas may be far more abstract than building a block tower, the skills are remarkably similar, and indeed grow out of the skills we have developed in earlier years.
Perhaps, as parents, we can relearn how to play, given enough open space and time. Perhaps — as I try to ignore my ever-present to-do list — we also need a shift in mindset, moving away from thinking of play as something we sign up for and towards the idea of it happening spontaneously, or with a little nudging at most. Perhaps we can start thinking of play as something we can engage in anytime, if we can put down our phones and pay attention, and allow ourselves the risk of being bored.