Letting kids play is a great way to support their learning—even academic learning. In fact, playing is the primary vocation for a young child.
In my last post I discussed the fact that the first five years of a child’s life are the most important period for brain development, and I pointed out that parents have immense power to help their children during this period. On the one hand, it’s great that we are in a position to influence the experiences that begin to shape our children’s minds. But on the other hand, all that responsibility can seem a bit terrifying. What if we mess it up?
Luckily, Mother Nature is looking out for us parents. She has instilled in our children an impulse that will, under the right circumstances, do all of the following:
- improve the key cognitive processes underlying strong academic achievement,
- directly boost brain growth,
- and even strengthen social skills (which turn out to be strong predictors of academic achievement in their own right—schooling, after all, is a thoroughly social enterprise)
And it will do all of these things without requiring any special effort on our part. Mother Nature has made our children want to play. All we have to do is let them!
Here’s roughly how it works. Playing requires children to learn (or make up) and keep in mind a set of rules. These rules can be complicated, like those of Candyland or Calvinball, or they can be as simple as, “I am not a little boy; I am a puppy. Puppies bark and walk around on all fours.” To remember these rules requires working memory; to adhere to them requires inhibitory control; and to adapt when a friend announces that it is time to play Chutes and Ladders or to become airplanes requires cognitive flexibility: an executive-function trifecta! (See my previous post for more about the importance of these executive functions.)
And that’s not all. Much play among young children is physical, and all that exercise has been shown to raise levels of both brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which stimulates nerve growth, and astrocytic glycogen, which is like a wheat-grass smoothie for brain cells. Unsurprisingly in light of these results, people young and old tend to perform better after exercise on a wide range of cognitive tasks, from memory tests to brainteasers. In fact, no less an august body then the American Academy of Pediatrics has, after rigorous research, concluded that unstructured playing at recess is as important as math and reading for elementary-school children’s academic achievement.
And there’s more! Much play among young children is social, and many researchers studying the (non-human) animal kingdom have determined that one of the primary roles of play is to teach youngsters how to negotiate social conflicts safely and effectively. One intriguing study used social isolation to prevent two groups of young rats from playing with their peers. When the first group of isolated rats reached adulthood, they were introduced into the general population, with disastrous results: The newcomers were tremendously socially awkward, responding to playful nips or incidental bumps with blood-drawing bites. The second group of isolated rats fared much better. The difference? Instead of being socially isolated for 24 hours per day, this group was allowed to mingle for one hour every day—and for the entire hour, they did nothing but play with their fellow rats. As a result of these brief but intense bouts of play, rats in this second group adjusted to adult life in the general population fairly smoothly.
These three benefits of play are certainly not the only ones, but they are enough to make a compelling case: Letting kids play is a great way to support their learning—even academic learning. In fact, it is fair to say that playing is the primary vocation for a young child. We would be well advised to let them get to work.