The Power of Play

As many of us already know, children’s play has been proven to be critical for cognitive, physical, and emotional development in young children. However, as this newsletter piece titled, Scrap Edutainment: Let Kids REALLY Play, from the Parenting Press News for Parents (February 2012) explains, sometimes it seems as if modern society is working against children’s natural desire for play.

“If parents and teachers wanted to design a way of life counter to the needs of developing human brains, they’d invent something like modern childhood,” declares Gabrielle Principe.

In “Your Brain on Childhood: The Unexpected Side Effects of Classrooms, Ballparks, Family Rooms and Minivans” (Prometheus Books, 2011), this psychology professor rails against Baby Einstein, video games, and battery-powered toys.

Instead of crowding them in classrooms for most of each weekday, babysitting them with wide-screen television, allowing video games to flood their bodies with adrenaline, building them artificial playgrounds and telling them what to play at recess, Principe says that adults should limit technology, cut back on organized sports and create plenty of time “for play that’s freewheeling, make-believe and messy.” In addition, schools would stop teaching to standardized tests, they’d individualize lessons, minimize homework, eliminate letter grades and bring back recess. This, she insists, will make children’s brains grow normally.

When kids get to play independently, improvising and imagining as they go along, they stimulate the growth of brain cells in the executive portion of the frontal cortex, which Principe describes as the foundation for executive function, the skills such as memory, attention and self-regulation. Free play develops self-regulation, she explains, because kids are in control. And self-regulation is what helps children delay gratification (i.e., wait their turn), clean up after play dates, persist at challenging tasks, and control negative emotion. Another plus of self-play: it also includes private talk, when children talk to themselves and others to lay out ground rules or the next set of moves. Although kids use it most when they’re pretending, they are learning a technique that we adults use during a cognitively demanding task, or an overwhelmingly emotional situation, she says.

Learning self-regulation can put a child on the path to lifetime success faster than anything else, this psychologist believes. “It’s a better predictor of school success than IQ.” If we butt out of their play, quit making up the rules for them, and reduce the time they spend in organized sports, after-school lessons and classes, the more opportunities they have to learn to police themselves, she says.