Saturday, May 9, 2009

Scientific American Magazine on Play

THE SERIOUS NEED FOR PLAY - A few highlights, also from the
February/March, 2009 issue of Scientific American Mind:

"Free play," as scientists call it, is critical for becoming
socially adept, coping with stress, and building cognitive
skills such as problem solving. Play-deprived childhood
disrupts normal social, emotional and cognitive development.
Psychologists say that limiting free play in kids may result
in a generation of anxious, unhappy, and socially
maladjusted adults.

Why are experts concerned that structured games--such as
soccer and more structured activities--are eating into free
play? Certainly games with rules are fun, foster learning to
work with others, and develop group cohesion.

The reason is that games have rules set up in advance to
follow. Play, on the other hand, does not have a priori
rules, so it affords more creative responses. This creative
aspect is key because it challenges the developing brain
more than following predetermined rules do. In free play,
kids use their imagination and try out new activities and

Children's free play involves fantasies--such as pretending
to be doctors or princesses or playing house--or mock
fighting, as when kids (primarily boys) wrestle and tumble
with one another for fun, switching roles periodically so
that neither of them always wins. The activity does not
need to have a clear goal.

Play helps develop social skills. Young people don't become
SOCIALLY COMPETENT by teachers telling them how to behave.
Those skills are learned by interacting with peers, by
learning what is acceptable and what's not acceptable.
Because kids enjoy an activity, they develop persistence and
negotiating abilities. They do not give up as easily in the
face of frustration as they might doing a math problem.

Play is also critical for emotional health because it helps
kids work through anxiety and stress. Through imaginative
play, which is most easily initiated without adults or
rules, children build fantasies that help them cope with
difficult situations. Play encourages flexibility and
creativity that may be advantageous in unexpected situations
or new environments.

Relieving stress and building social skills also seem to be
the obvious benefits of play. But there is another, more
counterintuitive area of influence: Play actually appears to
make kids smarter. Play improves problem solving. By playing
with blocks or a Quaker Oats box, for example, youngsters
spend less time in unproductive developmental activities
such as watching television. (Even when young people are
watching educational programs, the activity of watching
is a passive one rather than an active one.)

Many parents believe they are acting in their children's
best interests when they swap free play for what they see as
structured learning activities. Some hesitate to let their
kids play outside unattended; they fret about the
possibility of physical harm that sometimes arise during
play fighting or rambunctious fantasy play. 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 their children be children--not just
because it should be fun to be a child but because denying
youth unfettered joys keeps kids from developing into
inquisitive, creative creatures. Play has to be reframed and
seen not as an opposite to learning but rather as a
complement. Curiosity, imagination and creative are like
muscles: if you don't use them, you lose them.

Reducing "free play" in attempts to promote academic
achievement (as in making kindergarten into first grade) is
another well-intentioned but counterproductive approach--as
are the others at

Link to the Scientic American article: Here.

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