Monday, March 03, 2008

Remembering to Play

Several recent articles remind us of the importance of play. From NPR, Old-fashioned play builds serious skills, and NYT, Taking Play Seriously.

Also from the American Academy of Pediatrics (The Importance of Play for Health Child Development pdf : "Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength. Play is important to health brain development...Undirected play allows children to learn how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts, an to learn self-advocacy skills." An increased in hurried lifestyles and school-based academic performance may leave a child with little unstructured time. In one survey by the National Association of Elementary School Principals, 30% of kindergarten classes no longer had recess periods.

From the NPR story, cultural historian Howard Chudacoff, reflecting on children's play in the 19th century: "They improvised play, whether it was in the outdoors...or whether it was on a street corner or somebody's back yard...they regulated their play; they made up their own rules." Today, children are "supplied with ever more specific toys for play and predetermined scripts." Chudacoff goes on to make the point that self-regulating language is very high during make-believe play; without more opportunities for this practice, the cognitive benefits may be harder to materialize.

An additional point made in the NYT article, was the importance of play for the development of the cerebellum. For kids with sensory processing disorders, this is a big one. Sometimes the earliest indication that something isn't "quite right" is when a child avoids the normal rough-and-tumble play on the playground. That's why without intervention, a child may accumulate even fewer play experiences and fall even farther behind their classmates with time.

It should be no surprise that play is good for your children's (and your) brain. At left, scientists saw that Brain studies also suggest that exercise, humor, and imagination do good things for the brain. At left, scientists found that exercise increased blood flow to the dentate gyrus, a site very important for the formation of new memories as well as feelings of happiness.

Unstructured play diminishes dramatically for most people once they enter their adolescent years, but there is some evidence that more play would benefit the brain throughout the life cycle; seniors with better exercise patterns and a pattern of game playing were more likely to have stronger memories and have fewer signs of dementia.

Exercise-Induced Neurogenesis in the Brain
Humor Activates Reward
Humor, Laughter, and the Brain
New Scientist: 11 Steps to a Better Brain
Washington Post: Mind Games may trump Alzheimers
Eide Neurolearning Blog: The Daydreaming Brain
Lemelson: Invention at Play

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