Here’s some sound advice for any Tiger Mums out there: if you want your children to do well both academically and socially, give them plenty of free, unstructured play time! Forget tying kids to their books; in the early years, brain development may depend more on time in the playground than time in the classroom.
“The experience of play changes the connections of the neurons at the front end of your brain,” according to Sergio Pellis, researcher at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada. Without this essential play time, these highly important neurons are not challenged.
Your prefrontal cortex is what wires up the brain’s ‘executive control centre’. This control centre has an essential role in solving problems, cooperating, sharing, helping, consoling, regulating emotions and making plans. These are all essential activities for the development of important life skills, social interaction, relationships and study.
The only way to fire up this brain development is through lots of ‘free play’, according to Pellis. This type of play is not structured game playing involving rules, regulations and umpires, however. It is totally free and relies on kids making their own rules and finding their own way.
Examples of free play include building a cubby house, making up a game or engaging in rough-and-tumble play. The children’s brains have to figure things out themselves, which enables new circuits to be built in the prefrontal cortex.
Research on animals
For many years, researchers believe that animals played robustly with each other to prepare themselves for hunting, fighting and other necessary adult activities. In the last decade though, it’s been discovered that these activities were for a different purpose.
Scientists have been closely studying dogs, cats and other mammals. What they realised is that, for example, an adult cat has no problem at all killing a mouse, even if it didn’t indulge in playtime as a kitten. Playtime was not all about hunting; it had some other purpose.
Researchers at the Washington State University now believe that the purpose of play is to build pro-social brains that know how to interact with others positively. This play causes a lasting change in the brain required for thinking and social interactions. It also involves switching certain genes on and off, activating the entire neocortex (the parts of the brain which enable complex mental activity). When studying animals, they observed that approximately one-third of all genes were significantly changed just by having a daily half-hour play session.
So, does play have the same effect on human beings? According to Pellis, there are good reasons to believe that it does. Apparently many animals, such as rats and monkeys behave in very similar ways to children. We all abide by the same rules: requiring playing fair, taking turns and not inflicting pain. In addition, the more young people (or animals) play, the more socially adept they become.
Now, here’s where it gets exciting. For humans, the bonus is that all this free play time leads to better academic performance. One study in Psychological Science in 2000, Prosocial Foundations of Children’s Academic Achievement, found that the best predictor of academic performance in the first year of high school was a child’s social skills in year three. For an even more convincing argument that play matters, Pella says that “countries where they actually have more recess tend to have higher academic performance than countries where recess is less.”
Is it as simple as throwing kids in the playground and watching them become brainiacs? Not really. Unstructured play improves social, emotional and impulse control, which leads to improved attention and decision-making. Indirectly, this may also make a child’s time in school more enjoyable, making them feel happier and in turn, more receptive to academic pursuits.
The more direct effects, however, are the improved brain functions which make negotiating all the complexities of the demanding world of school life more manageable, so children are in a better position to learn.
Sage Institute of Child Care – it’s more than a job, it’s a rewarding career.
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