Play and the Brain

The importance of free unstructured play is a popular topic right now. There is a call from parents, and professionals to create more opportunities for children to have free unstructured play. Free play was a staple of my childhood. All of the children in my neighborhood were encouraged, not really, told to stay outside and play with friends instead of watching TV.

During our extended free play we would chase butterflies, build forts, run around in fields of grass, and play made up games. Other times we would play pretend army, dig in the dirt, ride our bikes, and climb trees. During this unsupervised time we learned social skills. One of the necessary parts of growing up was to learn how to make friends and solve an argument without any adults around.

Today there seems to be less free unstructured play. The schedules of children are more structured, and include many activities that are organized by adults. David Orr in the book The Third Teacher made this comment about play. “The best learning occurs when children spend unplanned and uncounted hours outdoors investigating, experimenting, exploring, and playing. Which is to say designing their own curriculum.” If the best learning is achieved during free play why did it go away?

Has the combination of safety concerns, school requirements, video games and extracurricular activities pushed the time away from play?

We are missing out on an important aspect of play that is over looked, brain development. In his book PLAY, Simon Brown M.D. wrote that a study at Monash University in Melbourne Australia “reported that there is strong positive link between brain size and playfulness of mammals in general”. Our brains are developed during play as they are connected to the body and our physical activity. In the book, PLAY, John Byers commented; “that during play the brain is making sense of itself through simulation and testing, and play activity is actually helping sculpt the brain”.

In free open play children are creatively coming up with ways to entertain themselves. They could be making up a game, acting out a fantasy, building, climbing and testing their limits. Possibilities are imagined and tested in free play. And if the spaces are more free form and challenging, instead of the manicured playground of our modern times, more learning and development will take place. During playtime children are sculpting their brains by creating new cognitive connections. If the spaces they are playing in create more challenge, then greater cognitive gains will occur.

My experience with children and play points to the benefit of having more challenging spaces for play. Spaces with open-ended materials like sand, water, dirt, wood and tools. In the early part of my career I worked for a municipal park system. Our afterschool program was in a large park with big green grassy spaces and plenty of trees in a beautiful space. The children in the program had access to the outside space all day and could play freely. The children had fun playing sports, and games but would get bored because the environment did not change.

To help make the program more exciting we would take the children to our local adventure playground. This was a space filled with mud, water, dirt slides, hammers, saws, nails, and wood to build with. They loved this place and would spend hours getting dirty and building. The children would always come alive in this space and have stories of the encounters experienced there. The children were always looking forward to their next visit and the adventure ahead.

How do you create more time and free play for children?

What ideas do you have to enrich an existing space into a creative outdoor playground?