Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Value of Play

An astonishing forty percent of elementary schools in the United States have now cut recess altogether. Fifty percent have cut gym. The implications of such measures may lead to some dire results. Most articles that debate the issue focus on the physical implications. They point to the increase in obesity and the propensity for an increase in diabetes and other health related issues. This is extremely important but only one consequence of prohibiting non-structure play in the developing child. Some articles may branch out and point to an increase in academic scores for children who participate in recess. This too while important is a limited version of the benefits of play.

Playing as defined by Merriam-Webster is : : recreational activity; especially : the spontaneous activity of children. A web definition describes play as: engage in recreational activities rather than work; occupy oneself in a diversion.

For anyone who has worked closely with children and who as an adult enjoys playing these definitions fall a bit short from the mark. I personally like my friend Pam's definition. Pam defines play as joyful learning! Now we are getting somewhere. Play is the foundation of learning. It is not only crucial for our physical and cognitive health, it is essential for our very survival. It is also not just for children! Play is the foundation of all learning. I need to stress this again because through play we learn about ourselves, our world and others. We learn social rules and norms. We learn how things work, what doesn't. We learn about patterns, sequences, growth, nature and science. We learn about our emotions and how to appropriately deal with them.

It is unfortunate that much of what we know of play came about through a tragedy. In 1966, Charles Whitman, a seemly normal and even pleasant individual went up to a tower at Texas University and shot 17 people dead and wounded 47 others. The governor of Texas put together a team of experts to investigate what could possible lead a person to commit such a heinous crime. Among the experts was Dr. Stuart Brown, a psychiatrist at Baylor University College of Medicine. May factors were found to contribute to Mr. Whitman's actions but one of the glaring conclusions of the panel was stated as follows:

A lifelong lack of play deprived him of opportunities to view life with optimism, test alternatives, or learn the social skills that, as part of spontaneous play, prepare individuals to cope with life stress. The committee concluded that lack of play was a key factor in Whitman's homicidal actions – if he had experienced regular moments of spontaneous play during his life, they believed he would have developed the skill, flexibility, and strength to cope with the stressful situations without violence.

The key word in the statement above is "spontaneous play." Mr. Whitman was a bright child with an above average I.Q. He was an Eagle Scout, an altar boy, he played baseball in high school yet he was deprived of "spontaneous play" with dire results. Dr. Stuart Brown found these results so fascinating he went on to create The National Institute for Play. In a study using mice, the mice were divided into two groups. One group was allowed to play normally while one group was deprived of the opportunity to play. A cat scent was introduced into the cage and all the mice did as they should. They ran and hid! Eventually the mice who were allowed natural and spontaneous play time started to sniff their surrounding and came out of hiding. The play deprived group starved to death because they never came out. When autopsies were conducted, the play deprived mice were found to have much smaller brains. It seems the play is essential for survival.

"The opposite of play is not work, it's depression." ~Brian Sutton Smith~

Play and learning are naturally intertwined. A child squeezing play-doh is hard at play, but also hard at work and learning. Squeezing play doh develops the muscle between your thumb and your pointer finger which is a precursor to holding a pencil, which in turn leads to writing etc. While playing we are allowed to work out emotional issues. Has your child ever played school after coming home? You can pretty much determine by the type of play if it was a good day or a bad day. Through play children try on adult roles, work out problems. Play gives children and adults an opportunity to release the pressure of a work or school day. Through play we relax, sometimes we find inspiration or just let the time melt away. I know that come spring I can spend three or more hours in my garden and I'm always shocked because it literally feels like I've only been out there a few minutes. Although I rarely describe my gardening as play, it's truly what I'm doing. I'm playing in the garden. I have a sense of purpose when I'm gardening. Sometimes I work out problems dealing with the lack of sunlight. I usually lose track of the time. I find myself lost in sheer joy. I've learned more from being in my garden than from any gardening book. The garden provides me the opportunity to test things I've read and see if they work. All these things are part of playing which are also part of learning. Best of all, when I'm done, I'm physically tired, emotionally refreshed and all around happier.

On my next post I'll be listing the types of play and give some suggestions for providing opportunities for playing with your children.

Until then,

Go out and play!