“Play is the highest expression of human development in childhood for it alone is the free expression of what is in a child’s soul.”

-Friedrich Froebel, the man who invented the concept of kindergarten with the understanding that activity and play were an essential part of early learning.

Play courtesy Strocchi on Flicker
Play courtesy Strocchi on Flicker

Today is Friedrich Forebel’s birthday, and I guess this quote struck me because the benefit and importance of playing has cropped up repeatedly in the last week or so, and has become my new fixation du jour.

An article from NPR talks about how play has also been linked to the very serious skill called executive function, known better to us lay-people as self-control. Researcher, Laura Berk found that playing at make-believe, in particular, encourages executive function development because children tend to talk to themselves while they play, and that talk tends to be self-regulating talk. As the play become more structured, the amount of self-regulating talk decreases.

Other research, described by Elena Bodrova at Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning, shows that children were more able to self-regulate in the late 1940s than they are today. Researchers asked children of different ages to stand perfectly still without moving. In the 1940s, 3-year-olds weren’t able to stand still at all, 5-year-olds could go about 3 minutes, and at age 7 children could stand still for as long as researchers asked them to. When the study was repeated in 2001, the 5-year-olds had the self-control of 3-year-olds, previously, and 7-year-olds were at the level of the 5-year-olds from the 1940s.

Of course, that is purely correlational, but researchers speculate that the shift from less structured, free-er play to the more controlled recreation that kids experience today has contributed to the lack of self-regulation.

Stuart Brown, one of the first play reseachers, gave a fascinating talk at Google, and about play.

I recommend watching the video, but for those, like me, that sometimes just want to skim for the interesting bits rather than watch a long (this one is just under 27 minutes long) video, a few things that I thought were worth noting.

  • JPL labs found that researchers who were tinkerers were simply better at problem solving than their counterparts who had spent less time ‘playing’ with things.
  • In one study rats were divided into groups, one that was allowed to play normally, and one where rough and tumble play was prevented. When these groups were exposed to a threat (a cat collar) they all ran and hid. Then, the playful rats slowly adapted and found the courage to venture out again, but those who did not play stayed in hiding until they died. Yikes!
  • In other animal studies, individuals who did not play had measurable deficiencies in terms of physical brain development.
  • human adults retain the ability to play well into adulthood more so than any other species.
  • Stuart Brown encourages us, not to ‘find time for play’ but to find a way to incorporate play into everything that we do. For example, as part of an assignment, design school students at Stanford were asked to think about why meetings were so boring and then come up with a way to make them fun and playful.
  • Play is not just a rehearsal or preparation for real-life. Play has a biological place in development in the same way that sleeping and dreaming does.

Sounds like Friedrich Froebel was on to something way back in the 1800s. I particularly like Stuart Brown’s admonition to incorporate play into everything that we do – to find a way to make everything playful. Working with playful people helps, and being married to a playful person helps, and I’m lucky in those ways, but I can’t help but wonder what other ways I might fill my life with play.