Free Play Is Essential for Normal Emotional Development
Why Mother Nature motivates our children to play in emotionally exciting ways.
Posted June 21, 2012 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
In play, children practice many skills that are crucial for healthy development. They practice physical and manual skills, intellectual skills, and social skills. I have written about all of this in previous posts. They also practice emotional skills. In play, children learn how to regulate their fear and anger and thereby how to maintain emotional control in threatening real-life situations.
Children love to play in emotionally exciting ways. Little ones delight in being tossed into the air or swung around by adults or teenagers (but only if the children themselves determine the height of the tosses and the vigor of the swinging). They also love to be chased by a “monster.” Somewhat older children enjoy somersaulting, pirouetting, cartwheeling, and other forms of spinning around; sliding, swinging high, and teeter-tottering on playground equipment; climbing trees or up the sides of buildings; leaping from heights onto water or snowbanks; and zipping around on scooters, bikes, skateboards, skis, and other devices that permit speed. Children of all ages seem to have a sense of their limits in such play. They typically start at low heights or slow speeds and move gradually up. They take risks in moderation. The joy of play combined with a modicum of fear is the exquisite sensation we all identify as thrill. But being thrown too high, or falling too far, or moving too fast is not thrill but terror.
Mother Nature has designed our children to play in all these “dangerous” ways because she knows that such play teaches them not just the physical skills they need for dealing with emergencies, but also the emotional skills they need. In such play, children dose themselves with just the level of fear that they can tolerate, a level just below the threshold of what might cause them to freeze up. In this way, they learn how to manage fear, how to prevent it from incapacitating them. They learn that fear is normal and healthy, something they can control and overcome through their own efforts. It is practice such as this that allows them to grow up able to manage fear rather than succumb to it.
Children also, when free, engage in lots of mock aggression in their play. They play at fighting, and they playfully taunt and tease one another. This is not bullying—far from it. The closest of friends play in this way. Yet, playful fighting does induce some degree of fear, and playful fighting and teasing, both, induce moments of anger. Children—especially boys—play this way because Mother Nature knows that they have to learn how to control not just their fear but also their anger. In this play, they experience anger within the limits of what they can manage. Such “aggressive” play can only occur among close friends, who trust one another and know, ultimately, that the fighting and taunting is all in fun and not intended for real hurt.
Playing children also sometimes get into real spats, coupled with anger, which stops the play and must be dealt with before play can resume. They learn to control both the in-play anger and the between-play anger because they want to keep playing, and they know that if they “lose it,” and have a temper tantrum or lash out in a real fight, the play will end. In serious life, we often experience anger-inducing situations, and a crucial life skill is regulating our anger so that it serves useful purposes and does not lead us to lose control and behave in ways that harm others and ourselves. In their “aggressive” play, children practice and learn that skill. All this learning can only occur in free play, with no adult directors or close supervisors. When adults are around to “protect” children from danger and resolve their disputes, they deprive children of the opportunity to learn how to protect themselves, resolve their own disputes, and regulate their own emotions.
Emotionally Intense Fantasy Play
Young children, of nursery school and kindergarten age, also practice emotional regulation in their make-believe, fantasy play. They play at emotion-provoking themes, including themes that induce fear, anger, and sadness. One person who has documented this, through observations in kindergartens, is the German researcher Gisela Wegener-Spöhring.[1 ]. For example, she described one play scene in which two little girls pretended that they were sisters whose father and mother had died and who were abandoned alone in the woods, with bears and other wild animals around. To deal with both their grief and fear, they held each other close and spoke intimately, and they built a cave to protect themselves and figured out what weapons they would use if a bear entered the cave.
In another case, Wegener-Spöhring observed a popular boy being bound to a chair as a prisoner and whipped by his playmates with a leather strap. The whipping appeared to be hard enough to cause some degree of real pain, but not more than the boy could tolerate. It was clear to a careful observer that these little children were all willingly and intensely engrossed in this game, in which they were practicing pain tolerance, anger management, and compassion. The children doing the whipping often stopped to comfort the prisoner by giving him pretend bananas to eat and water to drink. They balanced their play at aggression with play at compassion. According to Wegener-Spöhring, the only real violence related to this play occurred when the kindergarten teacher came over and abruptly stopped it, claiming it was too aggressive. Wegener-Spöhring contends that disruption of play, for no good reason, is always an act of violence and tends to produce a violent reaction. When the whipping game was forcibly stopped, the children’s moods soured. They began turning over chairs and misbehaving in other ways, in apparent acts of rebellion.
Effects of Play Deprivation in Animals
Researchers can’t do controlled experiments on play deprivation with children, in which one group is deliberately deprived of play during their developmental years and another group is allowed normal play, to observe the consequences. However, they can and have done such experiments with laboratory-raised rats and monkeys. Young mammals of all species play in emotionally exciting ways, much as human children do. They chase one another around and wrestle in play, and, depending on species, they leap, gallop, climb, tumble, and swing from branch to branch, in ways that involve some risk. Young rats and monkeys in confinement, however, play only when they have other youngsters to play with.
When monkeys are raised only in the presence of adults of their species, who do not play, they grow up not playing. When tested in early adulthood, they prove to be emotionally crippled. When placed in a novel environment, which would induce a moderate and temporary degree of fear in a normal monkey, they become incapacitated by fear, which they fail to overcome with time. When confronted with another young adult of their species, they cower excessively, or lash out with inappropriate aggression, or alternate between the two. In contrast, control monkeys raised in similar conditions, but with regular opportunities to play with other young monkeys, are able to modulate their emotions in these tests and adapt well to the initially threatening conditions.
Similar results have been found in experiments with rats. In one set of experiments, some otherwise peer-deprived young rats were allowed to interact for an hour per day with a playful peer while others were allowed to interact for an hour per day with a peer that had been rendered non-playful by injection of the drug amphetamine. Amphetamine—which is essentially the same drug that we use to “treat” ADHD in human children--knocks out the play drive in young rats without knocking out other social behaviors. The results of these experiments were that rats that had experience playing with a peer behaved much more normally in adulthood than did those that had the same amount of exposure to a non-playful peer. Apparently, the crucial interactions between young rats for normal emotional and social development occur in play. In other experiments, play-deprived young rats showed abnormal patterns of brain development. Without play, neural pathways running from frontal areas of the brain—areas known to be crucial for controlling impulses and emotions—failed to develop normally.
We don’t, in deliberate experiments, deprive human children of play to see what happens. We are, however, as a society, increasingly depriving them of play for other reasons—for the sake of their schooling, we think, or to protect them from dangers. As I pointed out in a previous post (here) and in a published article (here), over the past half-century we have increasingly deprived children of opportunities for free play, and over that same period, we have seen dramatic and continuous increases in all sorts of emotional disorders in children.
Some people think it is cruel to deprive young monkeys, or even young rats, of play for the sake of an experiment. I agree. But, hey, stop and think for a minute about what we are doing to our children. And we believe we are doing it for their own good.
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 Wegener-Spöhring, G. (1994). War toys and aggressive play scenes. In J. H. Goldstein (Ed.), Toys, play, and child development (pp. 84-109). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press
 Herman, K. N., Paukner, A., & Suomi, S. J. (2011). Gene X environment interactions in social play: Contributions from Rhesus Macaques. In A. D. Pellgrini (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of the development of play (pp. 58-69. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
 Pellis, S. M., Pellis, V. C. (2011). Rough and tumble play: Training and using the social brain. In A. D. Pellgrini (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of the development of play(pp. 245-259). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. Also: Bell, H. C., Pellis, S. M., & Kolb, B. (2010). Juvenile peer play experience and the development of the orbitofrontal and medial prefrontal cortex. Behavioral and Brain Research, 207, 7-13.
 Einon, D. F., Morgan, M. J., & Kibbler, C. C. (1978). Brief periods of socializarion and later behavior in the rat. Developmental Psychobiology, 11, 231-225.Also: Hall, F. S. (1998). Social deprivation of neonatal, adolescent, and adult rats has distinct neurochemical and behavioral consequences. Critical Reviews of Neurobiology, 12,129-162.
 Pellis & Pellis (2011).