Melinda Wenner has an excellent article on the benefits of unstructured playtime – play without any rules – in the latest Sciam Mind. The article reminded me of that great Auden quote, which he adapted from Nietzsche: “Maturity – to recover the seriousness one had as a child at play.”
Play actually appears to make kids smarter. In a classic study published in Developmental Psychology in 1973, researchers divided 90 preschool children into three groups. One group was told to play freely with four common objects–among the choices were a pile of paper towels, a screwdriver, a wooden board and a pile of paper clips. A second set was asked to imitate an experimenter using the four objects in common ways. The last group was told to sit at a table and draw whatever they wanted, without ever seeing the objects. Each scenario lasted 10 minutes. Immediately afterward, the researchers asked the children to come up with ideas for how one of the objects could be used. The kids who had played with the objects named, on average, three times as many nonstandard, creative uses for the objects than the youths in either of the other two groups did, suggesting that play fosters creative thinking.
Does lack of play, then, impede the development of problem-solving skills? Perhaps, according to animal studies. In a paper published in Developmental Psychobiology in 1978, experimenters separated young rats by mesh partitions–they could see, smell and hear other rats but could not play with them–for the 20 days during development when they would have most frequently played. The researchers taught these rats, and a group that had been allowed to play without constraints, to pull a rubber ball out of the way to get a food treat. A few days later they switched the setup so the rats would have to push the same ball to get the treat. The isolated rats took much longer to try new approaches, and thus solve the problem, than did the rats that had played. The authors speculate that through play, animals learn to try new things, and animals that do not play simply do not acquire this same behavioral flexibility.
Playing also appears to help with language development, according to a 2007 study in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. Researchers at the University of Washington gave a box of toy blocks to children from middle- and low-income families aged 18 months to two and a half years. Parents of these kids, as well as parents of a similar group of kids who had no blocks, kept track of how often the children played. After six months, the kids who had played with blocks scored significantly higher on language tests than the others did. The researchers are not sure, however, whether these improvements resulted from playing with blocks per se–because by playing with blocks, the youngsters were spending less time in unproductive activities such as watching television.
This also reminds me of something I wrote about a few months ago, which is the need to encourage (or at least not actively discourage) daydreaming in children. Daydreaming, like play, is a skill that must be cultivated. When it’s not cultivated, and kids never learn how to play without rules or think without guidelines (a daydream is the free play of cognition), the results can be damaging:
Teresa Belton, a research associate at East Anglia University in England, first got interested in daydreaming while reading a collection of stories written by children in elementary school. Although Belton encouraged the students to write about whatever they wanted, she was startled by just how uninspired most of the stories were.
“The tales tended to be very tedious and unimaginative,” Belton says, “as if the children were stuck with this very restricted way of thinking. Even when they were encouraged to think creatively, they didn’t really know how.”
After monitoring the daily schedule of the children for several months, Belton came to the conclusion that their lack of imagination was, at least in part, caused by the absence of “empty time,” or periods without any activity or sensory stimulation. She noticed that as soon as these children got even a little bit bored, they simply turned on the television: the moving images kept their minds occupied. “It was a very automatic reaction,” she says. “Television was what they did when they didn’t know what else to do.”
The problem with this habit, Belton says, is that it kept the kids from daydreaming. Because the children were rarely bored – at least, when a television was nearby – they never learned how to use their own imagination as a form of entertainment. “The capacity to daydream enables a person to fill empty time with an enjoyable activity that can be carried on anywhere,” Belton says. “But that’s a skill that requires real practice. Too many kids never get the practice.”
What’s the takeaway? Legos are the best toy ever, but be sure to sometimes hide the instructions. No rules!