The value of play is increasingly recognized by all kinds of researchers and specialists as an essential part of childhood development. Play is so important that it has been recognized by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as a right for every child. What is it that makes it so essential and what do children learn from the activity of play? Several studies reveal its value.
Psychologist Peter Gray of Boston College believes that elements of play helped humans thrive and create and maintain successful societies. He believes that free, self-organized play for children, and people of all ages, is a key element to the development of cooperative social skills. He speculates that learning to share and negotiate likely helped ancient humans survive in a harsh wilderness. These skills continue to benefit humans today. Being social and cooperative has made humans what we are. A successful human maintains the characteristics of humor, equality, and capriciousness, all of which were learned during play.
Researchers have found that play increases the capacity for self-regulation. This includes reduced aggression, the delay of gratification, civility, and empathy. When children play together, they are introduced to multiple perspectives. In taking on different roles, children learn problem solving and empathy.
Childhood play has even been linked to increased creativity in later life. Pretend play exercises the imagination and increases children’s capacity for cognitive flexibility. Children who engage in make-believe become more inventive and innovative adults. Actively using imagination in play, therefore, leads to creative thinking for every day uses.
Researcher Sergio Pellis from the University of Lethbridge, has found that play changes the connection of neurons in the prefrontal cortex, which is found in front of a person’s brain. He says, “Without play experience, those neurons aren’t changed.” Those changes are important in regulating emotions, making plans, and solving problems. During play, children learn to negotiate, determine rules, and learn to navigate social interactions. Essentially, during play, brains learn to become social.
Doctor and researcher Kenneth Ginsburg, of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, reports that play contributes to, “the cognitive, physical, and emotional well-being of children and youth.” He worries that in today’s stressful environment, children may not be engaging in a healthy amount of play. Those most susceptible to not engaging in enough play are impoverished populations who do not have adequate resources and who must work instead of playing, and those who are time-poor.
Going without play may have serious consequences to long-term health. The Trust for Public Land put out the whitepaper “The Benefit of Parks” advocates the need for more parks for children to play in. The paper explains that neighborhoods with parks have healthier people. In neighborhoods that have fewer parks, children suffer higher levels of obesity, asthma, anxiety, and depression. Other social benefits of parks include reduced crime and the creation of strong community ties.
The act of playing has so many benefits. Studies find that in children it increases creativity, emotional development, cooperation, and so much more. At the same time, a lack of play causes so many unwanted negative symptoms to the body on mind. Moreover, play is meant to be fun! And, it is not too late to engage in play, no matter what your age! Adults who play can relieve stress, improve brain function, stimulate creativity, improve relationships and connection to others, and feel energized. So, take a break from your regular study schedule and play. It may just change your life!