When Do Kids Get the Time to Play?

And why it really, really matters if they don't

Posted Aug 05, 2016

This post is not about Pokemon Go. 

I thought it would be prudent to lead with that caveat. This post is about play – imaginative play, to be more specific – and while I have no qualms with the notion that people of all ages “play” Pokemon Go, that’s not the kind of play I want to discuss.

I was going to say that I want to write about “playing with myself,” but the adolescent boy in me recognizes the cognitive dissonance in that particular phrase, and the professional in me (who would like to keep his job) will merely issue this second caveat:

I will not call this post “playing with myself.”

But I am playing.  That’s in fact exactly what I’m doing in this lengthy, mildly puerile, somewhat pedantic, and probably a little bit irritating introduction. 

I am playing. 

Or, more accurately, I am being playful. 

Because, anyone who watches the news knows that the capacity to be playful is increasingly important these days.  It allows us to tolerate stuff that we might otherwise find unbearable. This is especially true for our kids.   

Here’s a developmental primer:

Little kids play.  Bigger kids are playful.  Adults play when they can.  In fact, those might be the most fundamental precepts of human development.  It has even been postulated that early hominids who were unable to engage in imaginative play lost the ability to survive.  They became extinct because their lack of play prevented the necessary brain development for avoiding annihilation. 

Could play be tied to our very survival?

When I was a kid, I had time set aside, explicitly by me and implicitly by my parents, to engage in all sorts of imaginative play.  I had a collection of pieces of bark from the firewood stacked in my backyard.  Each piece of bark looked a little different to the casual observer, and to me each piece of bark was something entirely special.  There were spaceships, and a bazooka, and an assortment of fighter jets.  There were robots, just waiting in my backyard, sitting disguised as fragments of wood.  There were guns. I figured if Captain Kirk had a gun, then I should have one too.  To be precise, Captain Kirk had a “phaser”, but he used it against the bad guys, so it seemed I ought to have one of those also.  Some of that firewood bark definitely turned into phasers.

My backyard turned seamlessly into the outer reaches of space at warp speed velocity.  It was the battleground where I fought for liberation from mysterious and nefarious robots.  The northwest corner our lawn housed the deadly cave were an evil genius was planning (yet again) to bring chaos to the order of our placid world.  I ran around and skidded behind trees.  Those trees could be barren in winter gloom or alive with the downy green of spring…none of that mattered.  My backyard, regardless of the season, was the inside of a giant blimp steered by aliens who for unclear reasons needed a blimp from which to fire their neutron torpedoes.  I got shot by bullets, pierced by lasers, poisoned by darts filled with truth serum. 

I always survived.  

I rescued, over and over, a girl named Shannon O’Mcelvaney who I doubt knew that I even existed but who nevertheless sat in real life two desks down and one to the right in my second grade classroom.

There’s an important developmental kicker in that last paragraph.  It was second grade.  I was seven years old.  If I told you that these were the hijinks of a teen, you’d be rightfully worried.  But at seven, these hijinks were absolutely essential for me to work through my issues.  I didn’t know it, but I was contemplating problems.  I was figuring out how to manage my conflicts.  I was working to reconcile my own aggressive feelings with my anxieties and my dreams.  As such, the spaceships and the bazookas and everything else were completely real.  And believe me.  If I spent the day at school conjuring some new adventure and then got home to be reminded of a forgotten engagement – a dentist’s appointment, maybe, or a visit to my grandmother – let's just say I was going to be in a pretty bad mood. 

To put this all into perspective, consider this solitary stunning fact: My sister, a year younger than me, had a sponge-like capacity for collecting incriminating information.  She was devoted to ridiculing me at every opportunity. She spied on my relentlessly during my back yard escapades, and I did not care. That’s how much I needed to play.

All of this begs a few fundamental questions:

-Is this kind of play normal?

-Is this kind of play important?

-Have we stopped valuing the importance of play?

And yes, I am aware that these are leading questions. 

To be clear, I am not dissing Pokemon Go. Pokemon Go can be pretty cool (played safely, of course).  But Pokemon Go is directed play.   There are rules.  The free-form, all by yourself, made up world of the little kid – the one where you can’t really get hurt but for which there are nevertheless no restrictions or limits – is a completely different thing, and it is utterly normal. We’ve been doing this kind of play since we became human in the first place, and some animal behavior experts would argue that we’ve been doing it way before that.  After all, there is evidence that rats play, that dogs play, and that guinea pigs play. Pretty much anything with a central nervous system plays. 

This is because, some have argued, play is practice.  It is this practice that makes play so important.  There is even evidence that play by itself leads to more profound brain development.  Give a rat a maze and its brain grows faster and more intricately than a rat in an boring cage.  But give a rat a cage with cool stuff – the rat equivalent of my childhood back yard – and that rat’s brain grows in leaps and bounds.  There is growth in both the prefrontal cortex and the cerebellum.  There are in fact multiple studies suggesting that imaginative play spurs executive functionIt happens for rats and it happens for humans.  

Do you see why I’m a little bit nervous?

We are increasingly eschewing play.  We are increasingly scheduling our children into rigidly defined activities.  We have school recesses where our children are required to play kickball.  We have play dates where our children are required to complete a craft.  We have Judo, and violin lessons, and hockey about a thousand times a week.  If play is the place where we conjure our conflicts and learn to tolerate our mixed emotions, then we need to make time for play.  After all, it sure seems that we’re getting worse at tolerating our conflicts. 

And yet that’s exactly what play is for.   

Steve Schlozman, MD is the associate director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital.  A version of this piece originally appeared on the Clay Center website.  Steve is also the author of two novels: The Zombie Autopsies and Smoke Above Treeline.