The Value of Play

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images.jpegChildren's play has an image problem. People think it's...kid's play. But the importance of play is entirely counterintuitive. Play LOOKS LIKE a waste of time, because it is not goal-directed. And we adults are goal- directed. So we trivialize kids' play. It gets in the way of other things on the way to achievement, a goal we very much want for our kids and are very worried about these days--counterproductively, I believe. 
But play turns out to be critical neurologically. And that is the great hidden secret of play. Play stimulates neurogenesis, hastening the development of the executive functions of the brain. It fosters maturation of the very centers of the brain that allow kids to exert control over attention, to regulate emotions, and to control behavior. This is a very subtle trick that nature plays--it uses something that's NOT goal-directed to create the very mental machinery for BEING goal-directed.

Thanks to achievement pressures, kids' free play is going the way of the hula-hoop. Contrary to the widely held belief that only intellectual activities build a sharp brain, it's in play that the cognitive skills are most acutely developed. Much of the mental sharpening that occurs with play has to do with the fact that play embodies ambiguity: Is the running in tag real or is it antic? Play both demands and inspires mental dexterity. Play makes us nimble, capable of adapting to a rapidly evolving world. In making our brain circuits more flexible, play prompts us to see the world in new ways.

None of us knows what the world is going to look like 10 years from now. How do you prepare kids for an unknown future? Many think that taking play out of childhood and substituting work is the best way--and that earlier is better.

The best way to prepare kids for the future is to let them play on their own--unmonitored, unsupervised, unstructured. Because when adults enter the situation, it changes the way kids play--what they do, what they talk about and how.

Play is the future with sneakers on.


I agree with the importance of outdoor, physical playtime. But I also remember, in my case, that I learned a awful lot playing with a piece of clear tubing and water in our kitchen sink. There's a lot of valuable experiences a child can learn from messing around with indoor play. None of it was from a book, but it all came together later in life as "common sense". Which, as we are seeing, is seeming to be less common every day.

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