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Excerps from “The Serious Need for Play”


Originally uploaded by K Chu




Excerpts from an article published in Scientific American Mind (February 2009) called “The Serious Need for Play“.

Note, these are just excerpts, please click on the link to read the full, very fascinating, article.


The Serious Need for Play

Free, imaginative play is crucial for normal social, emotional and cognitive development. It makes us better adjusted, smarter and less stressed.

By Melinda Wenner   


Key Concepts

– 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.


Free Play

“Free play,” as scientists call it, is critical for becoming socially adept, coping with stress and building cognitive skills such as problem solving. Research into animal behavior confirms play’s benefits and establishes its evolutionary importance: ultimately, play may provide animals (including humans) with skills that will help them survive and reproduce.

Most psychologists agree that play affords benefits that last through adulthood, but they do not always agree on the extent to which a lack of play harms kids—particularly because, in the past, few children grew up without ample frolicking time. But today free play may be losing its standing as a staple of youth. 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. Concerned about getting their kids into the right colleges, parents are sacrificing playtime for more structured activities. As early as preschool, youngsters’ after-school hours are now being filled with music lessons and sports—reducing time for the type of imaginative and rambunctious cavorting that fosters creativity and cooperation.

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.

Social Skills

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.

If play helps children become socialized, then lack of play should impede social development—and studies suggest that it does. According to a 1997 study of children living in poverty and at high risk of school failure, published by the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation in Ypsilanti, Mich., kids who enrolled in play-oriented preschools are more socially adjusted later in life than are kids who attended play-free preschools where they were constantly instructed by teachers. 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.

Animal studies lend support to the idea that play deprivation leads to poor social skills. According to a study published in 1999 in Behavioural Brain Research, rats that are kept isolated during the two weeks of development when they most frequently play—the fourth and fifth weeks after birth—are much less socially active when they later encounter other rats as compared with rats that are not isolated during the same two-week period. And a study published in Developmental Psychobiology in 2002 revealed that male rats reared in isolation during their youth fail to display normal avoidance behaviors when introduced to dominant male rats that repeatedly attack them. Could play deprivation specifically cause these behavioral problems—or could social isolation in general have been the culprit?

Another study suggests that play promotes neural development in “higher” brain areas involved in emotional reactions and social learning. Scientists reported in 2003 that play fighting releases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF)—a protein that stimulates the growth of new neurons—in these regions. The researchers allowed 13 control rats to play freely with companions for three and a half days and kept 14 other rats isolated for the same period. On examining the rats’ brains, the researchers found that the cortex, hippocampus, amygdala and pons of the rats that had played contained much higher levels of BDNF than those of the rats that had not. “I think play is the major mechanism whereby higher regions of the brain get socialized,” says Washington State University neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, who co-authored the study.


Stress Relief

Animal studies also support the idea that play helps to alleviate stress—a concept known in neuroscience as social buffering. In a study published in 2008, Gettysburg College neuroscientist Stephen Siviy put rats into a chamber by themselves and exposed them to a collar previously worn by a cat, which made them visibly anxious. Later, the chamber was cleaned so it no longer smelled of the cat, the rats were put back in without the cat collar, and the rats immediately became anxious again, probably because they associated the space with the cat. But if Siviy and his colleagues then introduced another rat into the chamber—one that had never been exposed to the cat collar and was not afraid—the two would begin playing by chasing each other, tumbling and pretend fighting. And shortly thereafter, the first rat would relax and become calm, suggesting that play helped the rat to lessen its anxiety.


Intellectual & Creative Skills

Relieving stress and building social skills may seem to be obvious benefits of play. But research hints at a third, more counterintuitive area of influence: play actually appears to make kids smarter. In a classic study published in Developmental Psychology in 1973, researchers divided 90 preschool children into three groups. One group was told to play freely with four common objects—among the choices were a pile of paper towels, a screwdriver, a wooden board and a pile of paper clips. A second set was asked to imitate an experimenter using the four objects in common ways. The last group was told to sit at a table and draw whatever they wanted, without ever seeing the objects. Each scenario lasted 10 minutes. Immediately afterward, the researchers asked the children to come up with ideas for how one of the objects could be used. The kids who had played with the objects named, on average, three times as many nonstandard, creative uses for the objects than the youths in either of the other two groups did, suggesting that play fosters creative thinking.

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. During the test, researchers presented kids with five pictures of a child trying to get a toy from a peer and five pictures of a child trying to avoid being reprimanded by his mother. The subjects were then asked to come up with as many possible solutions to each social problem; their score was based on the variety of strategies they mentioned, and children who play-fought regularly tended to score much better.

Does lack of play, then, impede the development of problem-solving skills? Perhaps, according to animal studies. In a paper published in Developmental Psychobiology in 1978, experimenters separated young rats by mesh partitions—they could see, smell and hear other rats but could not play with them—for the 20 days during development when they would have most frequently played. The researchers taught these rats, and a group that had been allowed to play without constraints, to pull a rubber ball out of the way to get a food treat. A few days later they switched the setup so the rats would have to push the same ball to get the treat. The isolated rats took much longer to try new approaches, and thus solve the problem, than did the rats that had played. The authors speculate that through play, animals learn to try new things, and animals that do not play simply do not acquire this same behavioral flexibility.

Playing also appears to help with language development, according to a 2007 study in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. Researchers at the University of Washington gave a box of toy blocks to children from middle- and low-income families aged 18 months to two and a half years. Parents of these kids, as well as parents of a similar group of kids who had no blocks, kept track of how often the children played. After six months, the kids who had played with blocks scored significantly higher on language tests than the others did. The researchers are not sure, however, whether these improvements resulted from playing with blocks per se—because by playing with blocks, the youngsters were spending less time in unproductive activities such as watching television.

But why might play help kids excel? Animal researchers believe that play serves as a kind of training for the unexpected. “Play is like a kaleidoscope,” says evolutionary biologist Marc Bekoff of the University of Colorado at Boulder, in that it is random and creative. The bottom line, he posits, is that play encourages flexibility and crea­tivity that may, in the future, be advantageous in unexpected situations or new environments. Some child psychologists, such as Tufts University child development expert David Elkind, agree. Play is “a way in which children learn,” Elkind says, “and in the absence of play, children miss learning experiences.”


Need for Play

If play is so crucial, what happens to children who are not playing enough? Ultimately, no one knows—but many psychologists are worried. Because play is somewhat risky—animals that are not alert and watchful are at risk of being attacked by predators—it probably evolved and persists because it confers survival advantages. “If it wasn’t important, it wouldn’t have evolved in its elaborate form,” Bekoff says.

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.

Of course, many parents today believe they are acting in their kids’ best interests when they swap free play for what they see as valuable learning activities. Some mothers and fathers may also hesitate to let their kids play outside unattended, and they may fret about the possibility of the scrapes and broken bones that sometimes arise during play fighting or rambunctious fantasy play, says Sergio M. Pellis, a behavioral neuroscientist at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta. Although those instincts are natural, protecting kids “simply defrays those costs to later, when those same children will have difficulty in dealing with an unpredictable, complex world,” Pellis says. “A child who has had a rich exposure to social play experiences is more likely to become an adult who can manage unpredictable social situations.”

Parents should let children be children—not just because it should be fun to be a child but because denying youth’s unfettered joys keeps kids from developing into inquisitive, creative creatures, Elkind warns. “Play has to be reframed and seen not as an oppo­site to work but rather as a complement,” he says. “Curiosity, imagination and creativity are like muscles: if you don’t use them, you lose them.”

3 thoughts on “Excerps from “The Serious Need for Play”

  1. As usual, more thought provoking postings. Thank you!

    Creativity and the realm of play are some highly important topics with me. I personally consider the skill of creative play as a tool that deserves a lot more attention than is often given to the stricter socializing tools of logic and even hard core science. Creativity gives us the capacity to see, and or imagine what science has yet to comprehend. In simple words, creative play is a survival tool, and may ultimately be more important as a core consciousness facility than all the rest of our brain tools put together.

    H.G. Wells published a work in 1911 titled, ‘Floor Games.’ He wrote the book with his children in mind as he wanted to nurture their creativity and intellectual capacity through their ability to play. Contemporary psychologists adopted part of his idea to use actual physical elements (toys and figurines) to ‘play’ with as tools to help in the healing process, and named this process ‘Sand Play Therapy.’

    I read the ‘Floor Games’ book over ten years ago, and one thing he wrote always continues to resonate deeply with me, is that he believed that children exposed to creative, playful stimulating environments when they were young would be much more prepared to make more open decisions, and valuable contributions as adults. So, yes I have major issues with how contemporary western education (and sometimes parenting) has eliminated the importance of time and energy for less structured creative stimulation curriculum. I will not go on and on here about how I feel that our restrictive educational views, and implementations of black and white teaching programs are actually very dangerous to the well being of our cultural, and civil survival. But I will venture that our human capacity to find and nurture peaceful internal and international relations will only arrive through highly skilled, and seriously ‘playful’ minds that know how to relate to others, and complex situations on levels that the vast majority of our contemporary leaders and thinkers are mostly still clueless about…

    To say the least, H.G. Wells had an immensely vibrant creative capacity, and his considerations of creativity, and play in human thinking are as substantial as anyone. It is even more impressive to think that he was comprehending this issue one hundred years ago.

    So it is always good to read more about people and researchers coming online with a higher and deeper appreciation for the seriousness of play!


    • Hi Chris

      Well I just ordered “H. G. Wells Floor Games” and am very much looking forward to reading it, especially since it had such an impact on you.

      Along the same lines, I also ordered “Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul” which was just published this year.

      “So, yes I have major issues with how contemporary western education (and sometimes parenting) has eliminated the importance of time and energy for less structured creative stimulation curriculum. I will not go on and on here about how I feel that our restrictive educational views, and implementations of black and white teaching programs are actually very dangerous to the well being of our cultural, and civil survival.”

      Yes, and it is only getting worse. Many schools have completely gotten rid of recess. And according to the article “children’s free-play time dropped by a quarter between 1981 and 1997”.

      It’s depressing to think that so many kids today are getting endless TV and instruction instead of being given the freedom to play.

      But it is encouraging that scientists (using the scientific method) are concluding that creative play really is very, very important. Hopefully that message will get through to parents despite the deluge of marketing promoting “educational videos”, and intensive schooling.


  2. Play: How It Shapes the Brain…

    This is great. Thank you. I look forward to reading this!!!


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