If you were lucky as a kid you had the opportunity to turn a cardboard box into anything from a rocket ship to school bus! Watching my kids play makes me want to light their toys all on the fire and dance around the ashes, then cancel Christmas. The reality is that the imagination of a child is much more entertaining than anything that I could buy from the store. And, as it turns out, science shows strong evidence that my evil plan might actually not be that evil at all.
Child psychologists define real play as, "the sort of play that has no supporting technologies, no defined script, and no end target aside from inventing worlds and finding ideas." Go back again to that cardboard box, or a toilet paper tube, or the stick from the sidewalk, or that perfect pebble that becomes the potion that wakes up the dragon who's going to make the world lava -- do you see it? These imaginative abilities and repurposing of objects are what will keep your children out your basement post graduation!
So, let's review. Your kids need sticks, cardboard boxes, a few paint brushes would be nice - you get the idea - and, as it turns out, boredom. That is right, they have to be bored. Dr. Teresa Belton, a psychologist who analyzed the effect of television and videos on children's writing, told the BBC that boredom enables kids to grow an "inner stimulation" that can help develop their imaginations. We often monitor their lives away. We sign them up for Spanish and karate classes and music and football and every other freaking thing because we believe these things are important for them. There often is the added weight of social pressure. We're all guilty. Sadly, a study published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine journal found that children’s free-play time dropped by a quarter between 1981 and 1997, and “this change appears to be driven by increases in the amount of time children spend in structured activities.”
Not only are we scheduling away their lives, unscheduled time ends up getting spent vegging out staring into the depths of a computer screen. A study done by the Kaiser Foundation in 2010 that found that children (between the ages of 8 and 18) spend over seven hours on digital media a day!!
Actual play so significant that some scientists have found that the absence of play can be harmful. Over 6,000 people were interviewed by psychiatrist Stuart Brown within a period of 50 years about their childhoods. One of his biggest findings was that “a lack of opportunities for unstructured, imaginative play can keep children from growing into happy, well-adjusted adults.” He definitley didn't say anything about kids struggling due to not having access to the latest video game or toy.
My childhood was spent in mostly in the arts, piano pedagogy specifically. We didn't have cable, weren't allowed to play video games, and play ended up meaning something inventive and unstructured. This usually meant being outside or staying inside and creating art. But guess what? I also remember all this being very boring at times! Sitting for hours playing the piano, drawing yet another picture, trying to catch another butterfly, or watching the same bird every morning. My parents didn’t know it, but they were doing most everything completely right by requiring me to entertain myself!
I want the same things for my kids. They need to be bored to cultivate their creativity, they need to have less strenuous schedules, and they need for me to step away from them so that their brains can do what they are meant to do: play.
In a recent interview on NPR’s Morning Edition, Sergio Pellis, Ph.D., an expert on the neuroscience of play noted that play actually changes the structure of the developing brain in important ways, strengthening the connections of the neurons (nerve cells) in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain considered to be the executive control center responsible for solving problems, making plans and regulating emotions.
Because play involves trying out various strategies without goals or consequences, animals and kids have the best opportunities to practice activities and see what happens. When Dr. Pellis compared rats that played as pups with rats which did not, he discovered that even though the play-deprived rats could carry out the same actions, the play-experienced rats could respond to their own circumstances in a more flexible, fluid and rapid manner. A computer scientist in Cornell, Hod Lipson sums it up by stating the gift of drama is that it teaches us how to take care of the unexpected -- a skill in today's uncertain world.
We now know that gene expression (if a gene is active or not) is influenced by many diverse things in our lives, including our surroundings and the activities we engage in. Jaak Panksepp, Ph.D., a Professor at the University of Washington studied play in rats. He found that even a half hour of play affected the activity of many different genes and activated the outer part of the rats’ brains known as the neocortex, the area of the brain used in higher functions such as thinking, language and spatial reasoning. We have not yet proven this same effect holds true in humans, but some researchers believe that it probably does.
It was believed play in young animals was to evolve more effective hunter and gatherer skills. But, Dr. Panksepp's analysis of play in rats led him to the conclusion that play served an entirely different role: teaching young creatures how to socialize with others in positive ways. His conclusion is that play helps build social brains.
The social skills acquired through play may help children become better students. Research has found that the best predictor of academic performance in the eighth grade was a child’s social skills in the third grade. Dr. Pellis notes that “countries where they actually have more recess tend to have higher academic performance than countries where recess is less.”
All of us worry that our children are getting too little physical activity as they spend big chunks of their time glued to their devices. Play, whether running around in the yard, climbing trees or playing on play structures means the entire body is moving and circulating. Physical activity helps children maintain a healthy weight and combats the growth of Type 2 diabetes--a condition all too common in kids--by raising the body's sensitivity.
*The body of research on the advantages of play indicates that we should rethink our priorities.
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