Friday, June 3, 2011

The Science of Play Part 1

As some of you may know, I have a passion for neuroscience... especially neuroplasticity - the ability of the brain to change due to experience.  It was only recently that scientists discovered that the brain remains "plastic" or "malleable" past the stage of infancy... even past the stage of puberty.

I am reading a book called Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul by Stuart Brown, MD.  I consider this book a must read for all parents.  Let me explain why in a multi post series on the importance of purposeless, consuming, imaginative play.

Let's start with a story from Play:

Cal Tech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) essentially invented the space age.  They were prominent in the design of major components involved in every manned and unmanned space mission to date in the late 1990's.

However, at about the end of the 20th centure, JPL noticed that they had a problem.  The engineers that they had hired in the 1960's were all retiring... and JPL was having a hard time replacing them.  Even though JPL hired the top grads from MIT, Standford and Cal Tech, the new engineers seemed to be lacking... they simply weren't that good at certain types of problem solving.  They would excel at theoretical mathmatical problems... but when it came time to bring those theories into practice, they floundered.

JPL management tackled the problem with time and energy just like they did for their engineering work.  What they found was fascinating:

"..those engineers who worked and played with their hands as they were growing up were able to 'see solutions' that those who hadn't worked with their hands coul not."  (Play Page 10)

After examining their retiring engineers, JPL discovered that as children, their older staff had often played with taking things apart to see how they worked, built soapbox racers and fixed appliances.  They had a chance to test things, make mistakes, problem solve and create without formal guidance from adults.

It turns out that the best young engineers at JPL had done the same - they played with their hands and experimented with youthful projects.  Needless to say, JPL required answers from job candidates about their experience with this type of play as part of their interview process.

Dr. Brown defines the properties of play as the following:
  1. Apparently purposeless (done for its own sake)
  2. Voluntary
  3. Inherent attraction
  4. Freedom from time
  5. Diminshed consciousness of self
  6. Improvisational potential
  7. Continuation desire
I will only touch on a few of these attributes so as to encourage you, the reader, to check this book out of the local library and invest the time to read it.  It's appropriate for parents, teachers, mentors, grandparents and all other adults who are influential in the development of a child.

One of the key attributes of play is that it is not obligatory.  The child partakes in the activity because they wish to... not because they have to.  Another is that the play has no practical value beyond its own sake.  Yes, it does happen to have value - as we will explore later - but the value is in its lack of purpose.

Lastly, the importance of improvisational potential cannot be understated.  Play gives us the chance to develop new strategies, behaviors and ways of thinking.  We have the opportunity to step outside of rigid rules and try out a new way of doing something.  If there is a threat to the play ending because of a disagreement, we can improvise and create new rules so that the play can continue.  Why?  Because it's fun!

Dr. Brown studied murderers in Texas prisons and found that "the absence of play in their childhood was as important as any other single factor in predicting crimes". (Play Page 26)  As well, he studied kids who were abused and at risk for anti-social behavior (including violence) and documented how these tendencies were reduced through play.

Dr. Brown goes on to quote numerous studies that explain how play helps develop socialization, the reading of "cues", and social signaling.  He quotes famous scientists who have studied play among animals and how important it is as a "pretend rehearsal" for life... where animals can make mistakes without the burden of a severe outcome such as death.

The problem is that our current society has parents believing that their developing child (especially teens) need to be spending an inordinate amount of time "doing something useful".  We ferry them from organized sport activity to organized educational activity and we are constantly looking for how this latest activity will help them get into a good college or land a high paying job.

Unfortunately, this desire to control the vast majority of our children's time is stifling their chance to figure things out for themselves.  Between the rigid structure of modern education - where standardized testing of rote material supercedes recess and artistic expression - and our own need to make sure our child is a "success", we have missed the boat on giving our kids the room and freedom to be creative and autonomous... to be involved in activities where they decide what to do and how to do it. 

Do you remember being a kid, getting home from school, throwing down your books, and running outside to play until dinner time?  I lived in the country and I can tell you, I did some things that were just as dangerous as navigating heavy traffic in the city.  I am sure you can remember some of the things you did that you would never allow your child to do today.

Our obsession with protecting our children from any harm has led us to severely restrict their outdoor play.  The media has us believing (falsely) that there are child molesters and abductors everywhere... just waiting to strike.  I will talk about this in a later post that reviews two other outstanding books called The Gift of Fear and Protecting the Gift by Gavin DeBecker.

It's time to lift the chains of Fear and Achievement off of our children's shoulders.  Kids are natural learners.  We do need to provide some measure of safety - but we also need to let them make mistakes and experience consequences that may even be uncomfortable (but not harmful).

Please take the time to look at your child's free time.  Weigh how often your child is able to be freely creative and immersed in "unproductive" play.  Give them things to take apart.  Take them out to the country (preferrably where there is no cell phone reception) and let them explore.  Talk to your neighbors and encourage the kids to set up a game of tag - and let them work out their differences so they can keep playing.

And while you are at it, take some time for yourself.  Get dirty.  Take apart that appliance you were going to throw out.  Marvel at the machinery.  Draw.  And get the other parents in your neighborhood together for a game of squirt gun tag (if you can talk them into it).  You'd be surprised how fast it all comes back to you.  And if you need a rational reason for it, just explain to yourself that you are busy growing new neural pathways and improving your brain plasticity.  Oh yeah... and it's fun.

Meghan Gardner
Guard Up! After School Program

1 comment:

  1. Great post and can't wait to read Part 2! I've included a link in the June 21st issue of Parenting News, our free weekly newsletter for parents and teachers. I hope it brings lots of readers to your blog!

    Many thanks -
    Maggie Macaulay, MS Ed