Historically, play has been treated as an inconsequential trifle, something kids do and grow out of. That’s inaccurate.
More than a century ago, Herbert Spencer argued that play was nothing more than the way children expended excess energy. About that same time, a different theory held that play was restorative; a way to recover from the rigors of work. And not long after that, evolutionary biologists were arguing that in animals, play was “practice” for survival skills (e.g., pouncing on prey, or evading those same pouncing predators).
By the mid 20th century, play was increasingly seen as both essential and important. Psychologists like Piaget recognized that play is critical in the social and cognitive development of children; that play helped children explore and learn about the world. Neurobiologists recognized that play was a necessary part of brain development. And so fundamental is play that the UN considers it a basic human right. But what actually happens when we play?
The analogy of the “blank slate” is sometimes used to describe how babies start as empty vessels that learn through experience. But a baby’s brain actually has more neural connections than an adult’s brain. Learning, then, is not so much figuring out what’s needed and filling in the slate, it is the process of figuring out what’s not needed and erasing it. This process is called “pruning”, and one benefit is that it makes the brain more efficient, by eliminating neural pathways that never get used while strengthening the ones that are used a lot.
The act of play is so crucial to “pruning” that the brain self-organizes around it. We’re wired to have an instinct for and to derive pleasure from play. Without it, the brain won’t learn what can be pruned away and what can’t (or, at least, it won’t learn it well). Humans have emotional drives to seek out food or sex or to avoid threatening things, because those things are central to survival. Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp argues that the need to play is an emotional motivation just like our drives for food and sex—suggesting that play, too, is fundamental to survival (and, as I’ll describe later, further suggesting that being deprived of play has real consequences).
In addition to its importance, play is also more sophisticated than it may seem on the surface. When kids pretend to be pirates, animals, or professional athletes, they understand and take on the attributes and beliefs of another person, and recognize that another person may think or act differently than them. “Pretend” means understanding the counterfactual—that what they are doing or thinking about is not the truth, that they aren’t really a pirate. Play often means testing hypotheses about how the world works and getting feedback about whether those hypotheses are correct, like the beachbound tot learning by trial-and-error the structural stability of a sandcastle. Play usually involves pro-social bonding, physical activity, and cooperative games, perhaps the first ways in which children begin to socialize. It may appear frivolous, but play is actually complicated.
When children become adults, they stop playing so much. But if play is so important to how the brain develops—for socializing and cooperating and understanding multiple perspectives and physical laws of the world—then shouldn’t not playing have consequences? It likely does: Alison Gopnik is a play researcher who makes a compelling argument that play, or the lack of it, underpins our interaction with the outside world.
Children, by her view, are explorative. They are little scientists, testing things out and trying to figure out the rules of the world. Adults, though, are exploitative. They have all those years of experience, all those they learned by playing. Now they use shortcuts and heuristics to navigate the world, free to rely on that built-up knowledge. If play is for learning about the world, the at some point adults can stop, because they’ve learned what they need to know. But stopping has a consequence: when trying to solve novel problems, adults can actually be less creative and less intuitive than children—victims, in a sense, of their lack of exploration. It’s true: the world really does crush the spirit and creativity of children, turning us all into staid, boring adults (except Prince).
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The importance of play in brain development should be more well-known than it is. One simple reason is that play is sometimes replaced by rigid education, and we don’t really know the consequences of that. Enriching the intellectual lives of children is like an arms race*: piano lessons, play dates, educational toys, extracurricular activities, attachment parenting, and early learning programs like Head Start that increasingly aim to provide school-like atmospheres for younger and younger kids—an unbreakable chain shuttling kids from private nursery school to private elementary school to Duke. “You don’t breast feed your kid until they’re six and had them in cello lessons at 18 months? Tsk tsk.” Whether some of these interventions help all that much isn’t entirely clear, but a less obvious question is this: do they hurt?
ADHD diagnosis rates are climbing, and there’s not any one accepted reason for it. Jaak Panksepp studies play and argues that ADHD and other behavioral disorders—which often manifest as an inability to “behave” in rigid school environments—may happen when children are play-starved. Pushing that “educational” boundary by putting kids in ever-more-scholastic environments at ever-earlier ages may eventually be self-defeating, with benefits balanced by the costs of reducing the playtime that’s more important than parents think. The more time kids spend in rigid instructional environments, the less time they can learn by themselves through play. It’s possible that increasing ADHD rates are a consequence of that.
Play is not just a frivolous thing that kids do and grow out of: it is the necessary and self-directed way kids learn about the world, and how the brain learns to “prune” unneeded connections.
*Side thought: I suspect that there’s less room for “improvement” from “good” parenting than the damage than can be wrought through maltreatment and neglect. Once parents provide a nurturing environment that does not stifle their child, gains from things like fancy pre-schools are probably minimal. Parents should do their best, of course, but maybe not be so hard on themselves if their kid doesn’t end up in a Montessori school.