*First author is Caroline Thompson
People tend to think of play as a break for the brain. We think we are relaxing, zoning out, allowing our brain some time off. In reality, however, several important things happen in the brain as we play! Play affects the brain in lots of ways that have crucial outcomes later in life.
Why is play so important? A newborn baby has over 2 billion brain cells, but connections between these brain cells have not yet been developed and will constitute the majority of the 75 percent of the brain left to grow after birth (Sunderland, 2006). The vast majority of brain growth occurs in the first five years of life. Play builds needed neuronal connections that will influence memory, learning, emotional regulation, and social intelligence for years to come. Let’s examine a couple of types of play.
Physical, social interactive play includes activities like rough-and-tumble play, running, and jumping. This high-energy play is common behavior among mammals. It has several benefits.
Another form of play is creative which involves make believe, imaginative toys, and places to explore. Remember climbing a favorite tree or building a fort under the dining room table? Benefits of creative play are multiple.
Drawbacks of a lack of play. What happens when children don’t get enough time for free play? A child deficient in play tended to have a more difficult time engaging in school activities (Uren & Stagnitti, 2009). Thus, engaging in make believe actually can help a child navigate social situations and actively participate in real life.
Pointers to parents about playful arousal of brain activity in your child:
Who knew developing a healthy, skilled brain could be so effortlessly fun?
Carper, J. (2000). Your Miracle Brain, Harper Collins, New York: 31-32.
Panksepp, J. et al. (2003). Modeling ADHD-type arousal with unilateral frontal cortex damage in rats and beneficial effects of play therapy, Brain and Cognition.
Panksepp, J. (2007). Can play diminish ADHD and facilitate the construction of the social brain? Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry / Journal De l'Académie Canadienne De Psychiatrie De l'Enfant Et De l'Adolescent, 16(2), 57-66.)
Panksepp, J., Burgdorf, J., Turner, C., & Gordon, N. (2003). Modeling ADHD-type arousal with unilateral frontal cortex damage in rats and beneficial effects of play therapy. Brain and Cognition, 52(1), 97-105. doi:10.1016/S0278-2626(03)00013-7
Pellis, S. M., & Pellis, V. C. (2007). Rough-and-tumble play and the development of the social brain. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16(2), 95-98. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8721.2007.00483.x
Sunderland, M. (2006). The Science of Parenting, DK Publishing, New York.
Uren, N., & Stagnitti, K. (2009). Pretend play, social competence and involvement in children aged 5–7 years: The concurrent validity of the child-initiated pretend play assessment. Australian Occupational Therapy Journal, 56(1), 33-40. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1440-1630.2008.00761.x
* Caroline Thompson is a student at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, USA
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