Motherhood, Marriage and Other Wild Rides

Health, Happiness and the Pursuit of Mommyhood

The Serious Need for Play February 12, 2009

Concerned that our 3-year-old’s acclaimed (and expensive) preschool was little more than glorified daycare, we withdrew him last year in favor of a highly-academic International Montessori school run by a teacher my husband had at the Montessori he attended when he was a preschooler.

I’ll admit, little Joseph loves his new teachers and has connected emotionally with his new classmates. In my heart, however, I’ve wondered whether an entirely instructional environment including time-outs for “silliness” and rough-housing will help my son become a calm and diligent student, or thwart his natural instincts for the imaginative play customary to little boys and girls his age? (This is a significant issue for me, as my son loves to engage in gentle rough-housing—which the school frowns upon.)

In a fabulous piece by Melinda Wenner in the January 2009 issue of Scientific American, (The Serious Need for Play), Wenner offers several studies which kindled conversations between my husband and I, and will redirect our philosophy of our son’s education. If you are the parent of a preschooler, I urge you to read on; I’ve sent this enlightening piece to a number of friends and family members employed in early childhood education, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive in favor of fostering the joy of imaginative free play in our little ones.

According to Wenner, free play “makes us better adjusted, smarter and less stressed.” She notes that, “By age 23, more than one third of kids who had attended instruction-oriented preschools had been arrested for a felony as compared with fewer than one tenth of the kids who had been in play-oriented preschools. And as adults, fewer than 7 percent of the play-oriented preschool attendees had ever been suspended from work, but more than a quarter of the directly instructed kids had.”

In an exhaustive comparison of preschools in Orange County, California (where we live), it is nearly impossible to located a “play-oriented” preschool. Nearly every school, (aside from the excellent one I’d already pulled my child from) caters to parents like myself, who encourage their children to read, write and do math at earlier and earlier ages. In our anxiety to ensure our children one day enter the best post-secondary schools, we begin right away with music lessons, sports teams and extra-curricular, structured learning environments, rather than simply plopping them down in front of a stack of blocks and letting them create a game or scene of their own imagining. Or better yet, allowing art lessons to be opportunities for personal expression, rather than advise, “use green to color the sea turtle.” According to Scientific American, it is “rambunctious cavorting that fosters creativity and cooperation.”

“Free play,” as behavioral scientists call it, is critical for becoming socially adept, coping with stress and building cognitive skills such as problem solving. According to a paper published in 2005 in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, children’s free-play time dropped by a quarter between 1981 and 1997.

The following are important clips copied directly from Wenner’s article. I’ve added emphasis to key points:

Freedom Counts
But kids playsoccer, Scrabble and the sousaphone—so why are experts concerned that these games and more structured activities are eating into free play? Certainly games with rules are fun and sources of learning experiences—they may foster better social skills and group cohesion, for instance, says Anthony D. Pellegrini, an educational psychologist at the University of Minnesota. But, Pellegrini explains, “games have a priori rules—set up in advance and followed. Play, on the other hand, does not have a priori rules, so it affords more creative responses.”

This creative aspect is key because it challenges the developing brain more than following predetermined rules does. In free play, kids use their imagination and try out new activities and roles.

The child initiates and creates free play. It might involve fantasies—such as pretending to be doctors or princesses or playing house—or it might include mock fighting, as when kids (primarily boys) wrestle and tumble with one another for fun, switching roles periodically so that neither of them always wins.And free play is most similar to play seen in the animal kingdom, suggesting that it has important evolutionary roots. Gordon M. Burghardt, author of The Genesis of Animal Play, spent 18 years observing animals to learn how to define play: it must be repetitive—an animal that nudges a new object just once is not playing with it—and it must be voluntary and initiated in a relaxed setting. Animals and children do not play when they are undernourished or in stressful situations. Most essential, the activity should not have an obvious function in the context in which it is observed—meaning that it has, essentially, no clear goal.

Face Time
How do these seemingly pointless activities benefit kids? Perhaps most crucially, play appears to help us develop strong social skills. “You don’t become socially competent via teachers telling you how to behave,”Pellegrini says. “You learn those skills by interacting with your peers, learning what’s acceptable, what’s not acceptable.” Children learn to be fair and take turns—they cannot always demand to be the fairy queen, or soon they have no playmates. “They want this thing to keep going, so they’re willing to go the extra mile” to accommodate others’ desires, he explains. Because kids enjoy the activity, they do not give up as easily in the face of frustration as they might on, say, a math problem—which helps them develop persistence and negotiating abilities.

Keeping things friendly requires a fair bit of communication—arguably the most valuable social skill of all. Play that transpires with peers is the most important in this regard. Studies show that children use more sophisticated language when playing with other children than when playing with adults.In pretend play, for instance, “they have to communicate about something that’s not physically present, so they have to use complicated language in such a way that they can communicate to their peer what it is that they’re trying to say,” Pellegrini explains. For example, kids can’t get away with just asking, “Vanilla or chocolate?” as they hand a friend an imaginary cone. They have to provide contextual clues: “Vanilla or chocolate ice cream: Which one would you like?” Adults, on the other hand, fill in the blanks themselves, making things easier for kids.

Stress Relief
Research suggests that play is also critical for emotional health, possibly because it helps kids work through anxiety and stress. In a 1984 study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, researchers assessed the anxiety levels of 74 three- and four-year-old children on their first day of preschool as indicated by their behavior—whether they pleaded, whined and begged their parents to stay—and how much their palms were sweating. Based on the researchers’ observations, they labeled each child as either anxious or not anxious. They then randomly split the 74 kids into four groups. Half of the kids were escorted to rooms full of toys, where they played either alone or with peers for 15 minutes; the other half were told to sit at a small table either alone or with peers and listen to a teacher tell a story for 15 minutes.

Afterward, the kids’ levels of distress were assessed again. The anxiety levels of the anxious kids who had played had dropped by more than twice as much as compared with the anxious kids who had listened to the story. (The kids who were not anxious to begin with stayed about the same.) Interestingly, those who played alone calmed down more than the ones who played with peers. The researchers speculate that through imaginative play, which is most easily initiated alone, children build fantasies that help them cope with difficult situations.

Play fighting also improves problem solving. According to a paper published by Pellegrini in 1989, the more elementary school boys engaged in rough-housing, the better they scored on a test of social problem solving.

Indeed, evidence indicates that play is evolutionarily quite ancient. Rats that have had their neocortex removed—a large brain region that is involved in higher-order thinking such as conscious thought and decision making—still engage in normal play, which suggests that play motivation comes from the brain stem, a structure that precedes the evolution of mammals. “This means that the core, genetically-provided circuitry for play is situated in very ancient regions of the brain,”explains Panksepp, who led the experiment in 1994.

Take-away notes:

  • Childhood play is crucial for social, emotional and cognitive ­development.
  • Imaginative and rambunctious “free play,” as opposed to games or structured activities, is the most essential type.
  • Kids and animals that do not play when they are young may grow into anxious, socially maladjusted adults.
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