Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Icon

Cognitive and Emotional Development Through Play

We some­times neglect to men­tion a very basic yet pow­er­ful method of cog­ni­tive and emo­tion­al devel­op­ment, for chil­dren and adults alike: Play.

Dr. David Elkind, author of The Pow­er of Play: Learn­ing That Comes Nat­u­ral­ly, dis­cuss­es the need to build a more “play­ful cul­ture” in this great arti­cle The Power of Play And Learningbrought to you thanks to our col­lab­o­ra­tion with Greater Good Mag­a­zine.

- Alvaro

——————–

Can We Play?

– By Dr. David Elkind

Play is rapid­ly dis­ap­pear­ing from our homes, our schools, and our neigh­bor­hoods. Over the last two decades alone, chil­dren have lost eight hours of free, unstruc­tured, and spon­ta­neous play a week. More than 30,000 schools in the Unit­ed States have elim­i­nat­ed recess to make more time for aca­d­e­mics. From 1997 to 2003, children’s time spent out­doors fell 50 per­cent, accord­ing to a study by San­dra Hof­ferth at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mary­land. Hof­ferth has also found that the amount of time chil­dren spend in orga­nized sports has dou­bled, and the num­ber of min­utes chil­dren devote each week to pas­sive leisure, not includ­ing watch­ing tele­vi­sion, has increased from 30 min­utes to more than three hours. It is no sur­prise, then, that child­hood obe­si­ty is now con­sid­ered an epi­dem­ic.

But the prob­lem goes well beyond obe­si­ty. Decades of research has shown that play is cru­cial to phys­i­cal, intel­lec­tu­al, and social-emo­tion­al devel­op­ment at all ages. This is espe­cial­ly true of the purest form of play: the unstruc­tured, self-moti­vat­ed, imag­i­na­tive, inde­pen­dent kind, where chil­dren ini­ti­ate their own games and even invent their own rules.

In infan­cy and ear­ly child­hood, play is the activ­i­ty through which chil­dren learn to rec­og­nize col­ors and shapes, tastes and sounds‚ the very build­ing blocks of real­i­ty. Play also pro­vides path­ways to love and social con­nec­tion. Ele­men­tary school chil­dren use play to learn mutu­al respect, friend­ship, coop­er­a­tion, and com­pe­ti­tion. For ado­les­cents, play is a means of explor­ing pos­si­ble iden­ti­ties, as well as a way to blow off steam and stay fit. Even adults have the poten­tial to unite play, love, and work, attain­ing the dynam­ic, joy­ful state that psy­chol­o­gist Mihaly Csik­szent­mi­ha­lyi calls “flow.”

With play on the decline, we risk los­ing these and many oth­er ben­e­fits. For too long, we have treat­ed play as a lux­u­ry that kids, as well as adults, could do with­out. But the time has come for us to rec­og­nize why play is worth defend­ing: It is essen­tial to lead­ing a hap­py and healthy life.

Play and devel­op­ment

Years of research has con­firmed the val­ue of play. In ear­ly child­hood, play helps chil­dren devel­op skills they can not get in any oth­er way. Bab­bling, for exam­ple, is a self-ini­ti­at­ed form of play through which infants cre­ate the sounds they need to learn the lan­guage of their par­ents. Like­wise, chil­dren teach them­selves to crawl, stand, and walk through rep­e­ti­tious prac­tice play. At the preschool lev­el, chil­dren engage in dra­mat­ic play and learn who is a leader, who is a fol­low­er, who is out­go­ing, who is shy. They also learn to nego­ti­ate their own con­flicts.

A 2007 report from the Amer­i­can Acad­e­my of Pedi­atrics doc­u­ments that play pro­motes not only behav­ioral devel­op­ment but brain growth as well. The Uni­ver­si­ty of North Carolina’s Abecedar­i­an Ear­ly Child Inter­ven­tion pro­gram found that chil­dren who received an enriched, play-ori­ent­ed par­ent­ing and ear­ly child­hood pro­gram had sig­nif­i­cant­ly high­er IQ’s at age five than did a com­pa­ra­ble group of chil­dren who were not in the pro­gram (105 vs. 85 points).

A large body of research evi­dence also sup­ports the val­ue and impor­tance of par­tic­u­lar types of play. For exam­ple, Israeli psy­chol­o­gist Sara Smilansky’s clas­sic stud­ies of socio­dra­mat­ic play, where two or more chil­dren par­tic­i­pate in shared make believe, demon­strate the val­ue of this play for aca­d­e­m­ic, social, and emo­tion­al learn­ing. “Socio­dra­mat­ic play acti­vates resources that stim­u­late social and intel­lec­tu­al growth in the child, which in turn affects the child’s suc­cess in school,” con­cludes Smi­lan­sky in a 1990 study that com­pared Amer­i­can and Israeli chil­dren. “For exam­ple, prob­lem solv­ing in most school sub­jects requires a great deal of make believe, visu­al­iz­ing how the Eski­mos live, read­ing sto­ries, imag­in­ing a sto­ry and writ­ing it down, solv­ing arith­metic prob­lems, and deter­min­ing what will come next.”

Oth­er research illus­trates the impor­tance of phys­i­cal play for children’s learn­ing and devel­op­ment. Some of these stud­ies have high­light­ed the impor­tance of recess. Psy­chol­o­gist Antho­ny Pel­le­gri­ni and his col­leagues have found that ele­men­tary school chil­dren become increas­ing­ly inat­ten­tive in class when recess is delayed. Sim­i­lar­ly, stud­ies con­duct­ed in French and Cana­di­an ele­men­tary schools over a peri­od of four years found that reg­u­lar phys­i­cal activ­i­ty had pos­i­tive effects on aca­d­e­m­ic per­for­mance. Spend­ing one third of the school day in phys­i­cal edu­ca­tion, art, and music improved not only phys­i­cal fit­ness, but atti­tudes toward learn­ing and test scores. These find­ings echo those from one analy­sis of 200 stud­ies on the effects of exer­cise on cog­ni­tive func­tion­ing, which also sug­gests that phys­i­cal activ­i­ty pro­motes learn­ing.

In recent years, and most espe­cial­ly since the 2002 pas­sage of the No Child Left Behind Act, we’ve seen edu­ca­tors, pol­i­cy mak­ers, and many par­ents embrace the idea that ear­ly aca­d­e­mics leads to greater suc­cess in life. Yet sev­er­al stud­ies by Kathy Hirsch-Pasek and col­leagues have com­pared the per­for­mance of chil­dren attend­ing aca­d­e­m­ic preschools with those attend­ing play-ori­ent­ed preschools. The results showed no advan­tage in read­ing and math achieve­ment for chil­dren attend­ing the aca­d­e­m­ic preschools. But there was evi­dence that those chil­dren had high­er lev­els of test anx­i­ety, were less cre­ative, and had more neg­a­tive atti­tudes toward school than did the chil­dren attend­ing the play preschools.

So if play is that impor­tant, why is it dis­ap­pear­ing?

The per­fect storm

The decline of children’s free, self-ini­ti­at­ed play is the result of a per­fect storm of tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tion, rapid social change, and eco­nom­ic glob­al­iza­tion.

Tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tions have led to the all-per­va­sive­ness of tele­vi­sion and com­put­er screens in our soci­ety in gen­er­al, and in our homes in par­tic­u­lar. An unin­tend­ed con­se­quence of this inva­sion is that child­hood has moved indoors. Chil­dren who might once have enjoyed a pick-up game of base­ball in an emp­ty lot now watch the game on TV, sit­ting on their couch.

Mean­while, sin­gle and work­ing par­ents now out­num­ber the once-pre­dom­i­nant nuclear fam­i­ly, in which a stay-at-home moth­er could pro­vide the kind of loose over­sight that facil­i­tates free play. Instead, busy work­ing par­ents out­source at least some of their for­mer respon­si­bil­i­ties to coach­es, tutors, train­ers, mar­tial arts teach­ers, and oth­er pro­fes­sion­als. As a result, mid­dle-income chil­dren spend more of their free time in adult-led and -orga­nized activ­i­ties than any ear­li­er gen­er­a­tion. (Low-income youth some­times have the oppo­site prob­lem: Their par­ents may not have the means to put them in high-qual­i­ty pro­grams that pro­vide alter­na­tives to play­ing in unsafe neigh­bor­hoods.)

Final­ly, a glob­al econ­o­my has increased parental fears about their children’s prospects in an increas­ing­ly high-tech mar­ket­place. Many mid­dle-class par­ents have bought into the idea that edu­ca­tion is a race, and that the ear­li­er you start your child in aca­d­e­mics, the bet­ter. Preschool tutor­ing in math and pro­grams such as the Kumon Sys­tem, which empha­sizes dai­ly drills in math and read­ing, are becom­ing increas­ing­ly pop­u­lar. And all too many kinder­gartens, once ded­i­cat­ed to learn­ing through play, have become full-day aca­d­e­m­ic insti­tu­tions that require test­ing and home­work. In such a world, play has come to be seen as a waste of pre­cious time. A 1999 sur­vey found that near­ly a third of kinder­garten class­es did not have a recess peri­od.

As adults have increas­ing­ly thwart­ed self-ini­ti­at­ed play and games, we have lost impor­tant mark­ers of the stages in a child’s devel­op­ment. In the absence of such mark­ers, it is dif­fi­cult to deter­mine what is appro­pri­ate and not appro­pri­ate for chil­dren. We run the risk of push­ing them into cer­tain activ­i­ties before they are ready, or stunt­ing the devel­op­ment of impor­tant intel­lec­tu­al, social, or emo­tion­al skills.

For exam­ple, it is only after the age of six or sev­en that chil­dren will spon­ta­neous­ly par­tic­i­pate in games with rules, because it is only at that age that they are ful­ly able to under­stand and fol­low rules. Those kinds of devel­op­men­tal mark­ers fall by the way­side when we slot very young kids into activ­i­ties such as Lit­tle League. When Lit­tle League was found­ed in 1939, the adult orga­niz­ers looked to chil­dren them­selves in set­ting the start­ing age, which end­ed up being about age nine or old­er. But the suc­cess of Lit­tle League was not lost on par­ents eager to find super­vised activ­i­ties for young chil­dren. Before long, team soc­cer was pro­mot­ed for younger chil­dren because it was an eas­i­er and less com­plex game for the six- to nine-year-old age group. The rapid growth of soc­cer leagues chal­lenged the pop­u­lar­i­ty of Lit­tle League. This led to the intro­duc­tion of Tee Ball, a sim­pli­fied ver­sion of base­ball for chil­dren as young as four.

By push­ing young chil­dren into team sports for which they are not devel­op­men­tal­ly ready, we rule out forms of play that once encour­aged them to learn skills of inde­pen­dence and cre­ativ­i­ty. Instead of learn­ing on their own in back­yards, fields, and on side­walks, chil­dren are only learn­ing to do what adults tell them to do. More­over, one study found that many chil­dren who start play­ing soc­cer at age four are burned out on that sport by the time they reach ado­les­cence, just the age when they might tru­ly enjoy and excel at it.

Bring back play

Play is moti­vat­ed by plea­sure. It is instinc­tive and part of the mat­u­ra­tional process. We can­not pre­vent chil­dren from self-ini­ti­at­ed play; they will engage in it when­ev­er they can. The prob­lem is that we have cur­tailed the time and oppor­tu­ni­ties for such play. Obvi­ous­ly we can­not turn the clock back and reverse the tech­no­log­i­cal, social, and eco­nom­ic changes that have helped silence children’s play. Tele­vi­sion, com­put­ers, new fam­i­ly mod­els, and glob­al­iza­tion are here to stay.

What is impor­tant is bal­ance. If a child spends an hour on the com­put­er or watch­ing TV, equal time should be giv­en to play­ing with peers or engag­ing in indi­vid­ual activ­i­ties like read­ing or crafts. It is impor­tant to involve the child in mak­ing these deci­sions and set­ting the para­me­ters for how they spend their time. If we give chil­dren some own­er­ship of the rules, they are usu­al­ly more will­ing to fol­low them than when they are sim­ply imposed from above. It is also impor­tant to appre­ci­ate indi­vid­ual dif­fer­ences. You will not be able to keep some chil­dren from play­ing sports, while oth­ers pre­fer more seden­tary activ­i­ties.

Anoth­er way we can help bring play back into children’s lives is to have schools restore recess for at least half an hour. As research demon­strates, aca­d­e­mics are unlike­ly to suf­fer from this change; if any­thing, they’ll ben­e­fit. Schools also argue that they can­not afford recess because of high insur­ance costs and par­ents’ greater appetite for lit­i­ga­tion. But when I speak with insur­ance offi­cers about this issue, they claim that argu­ment is overblown. Either way, chil­dren could still be tak­en out­side, or to the gym, for cal­is­then­ics to exer­cise their bod­ies.

We must also address the more gen­er­al prob­lem of test-dri­ven cur­ric­u­la in today’s schools. When teach­ers are forced to teach to the test, they become less inno­v­a­tive in their teach­ing meth­ods, with less room for games and imag­i­na­tion. More cre­ative teach­ing meth­ods build upon children’s inter­ests and atti­tudes their play­ful dis­po­si­tion and this encour­ages them to enjoy their teach­ers, which in turn enhances their inter­est in the sub­ject mat­ter. Though com­put­ers are one of the forces lim­it­ing play, they can be cre­ative­ly used in the ser­vice of play­ful learn­ing. As more young teach­ers who are pro­fi­cient in tech­nol­o­gy enter the schools, we will have the first true edu­ca­tion­al reform in decades, if not cen­turies.

But you don’t have to be a teacher to help bring back play. Many neigh­bor­hoods bad­ly need more play­grounds. This was also the case in the 1930s; in response, we saw the “play­ground move­ment,” when local com­mu­ni­ties set up their own play­grounds. A new play­ground move­ment is long over­due, espe­cial­ly for our inner city neigh­bor­hoods, where safe play spaces are often in short sup­ply. A play­ground should be required of any new large-scale hous­ing devel­op­ment.

We could go fur­ther. In Scan­di­na­vian coun­tries, there are play areas in even the best restau­rants, as well as in air­ports and train sta­tions. These coun­tries appre­ci­ate the impor­tance of play for healthy devel­op­ment, and we could well fol­low their exam­ple.

Final­ly chil­dren do as we do, not as we say. That gives us incen­tive to bring play back into our adult lives. We can shut off the TVs and take our chil­dren with us on out­door adven­tures. We should get less exer­cise in the gym and more on hik­ing trails and bas­ket­ball courts. We can also make work more play­ful: Busi­ness­es that do this are among the most suc­cess­ful. Seattle’s Pike Fish Mar­ket is a case in point. Work­ers throw fish to one anoth­er, engage the cus­tomers in repar­tee, and appear to have a grand time. Some com­pa­nies, such as Google, have made play an impor­tant part of their cor­po­rate cul­ture. Study after study has shown that when work­ers enjoy what they do and are well-reward­ed and rec­og­nized for their con­tri­bu­tions, they like and respect their employ­ers and pro­duce high­er qual­i­ty work. For exam­ple, when the Rohm and Hass Chem­i­cal com­pa­ny in Ken­tucky reor­ga­nized its work­place into self-reg­u­lat­ing and self-reward­ing teams, one study found that work­er griev­ances and turnover declined, while plant safe­ty and pro­duc­tiv­i­ty improved.

When we adults unite play, love, and work in our lives, we set an exam­ple that our chil­dren can fol­low. That just might be the best way to bring play back into the lives of our chil­dren‚ and build a more play­ful cul­ture.

David ElkindDavid Elkind, Ph.D., is a pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of child devel­op­ment at Tufts Uni­ver­si­ty and the author of the books The Hur­ried Child, Mise­d­u­ca­tion, and, most recent­ly, The Pow­er of Play: Learn­ing That Comes Nat­u­ral­ly. Copy­right Greater Good. Greater Good Mag­a­zine, based at UC-Berke­ley, is a quar­ter­ly mag­a­zine that high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tif­ic research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism.

Leave a Reply...

Loading Facebook Comments ...

4 Responses

  1. I found this arti­cle very insight­ful about the need for chil­dren to learn through play­ing. It seems that children’s lives are often too struc­tured by adults to allow spon­ta­neous play­ing. I think the lack of play­time stunts a child’s self-ini­tia­tive, imag­i­na­tion, and cre­ativ­i­ty.

  2. Alvaro says:

    San­dra: I couldn’t agree more. We typ­i­cal­ly encour­age peo­ple not to “out­source their brains”…, and indeed this applies to children’s devel­op­ment too: if we (adults) make most deci­sions for them, they won’t devel­op their capac­i­ties as much. Learn­ing in a Safe Space (Play) is impor­tant.

  3. Ray says:

    It is not only that play is dis­cour­aged. Chil­dren do not real­ly play,“This is what they do”, they work at learn­ing all the time, it is not play. Play is an adult con­cept for some­thing that seems unpro­duc­tive. Do I hear Tiger W about now?
    Any­way it is not only the lack of play time that seems to be an issue, it is the lack of con­trolled risk that chil­dren are allowed to engage in. If a child has nev­er learned the effects of falling out of a 5 foot tree at 5 years of age, they do not realise the effect of dri­ving a 25 valve, pock­et rock­et car into a tree when they are 17. Play, risk, hurt, ouch, think.

Leave a Reply

Categories: Author Speaks Series, Education & Lifelong Learning, Health & Wellness

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

All Slidedecks & Recordings Available — click image below

Search for anything brain-related in our article archives

About SharpBrains

As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters, and more, SharpBrains is an independent market research firm and think tank tracking health and performance applications of brain science.