The Frontal Cortex

Unstructured Play

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.

[SNIP]

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!

Comments

  1. #1 Ryan Fox
    January 30, 2009

    This makes me wonder if always having music on to keep my brain stimulated is a good thing after all…

  2. #2 ak
    January 30, 2009

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8vNxjwt2AqY
    This lovely little clip is a nice demonstration of infant play as serious work. You can practically hear the new connections being made in this kid’s head as he goes about his business. Natural curiosity + freedom to explore = brain development. Thanks for the post, Jonah.

  3. #3 Caitlin C
    January 30, 2009

    Can’t think of a better illustration of how useful and beautiful childhood daydreaming is than the below…

    ‘This may seem very strange, but I think I no [sic] how to make people or animals alive.’ from The Great Beyond by dcressey
    http://blogs.nature.com/news/thegreatbeyond/2009/01/this_may_seem_very_strange_but.html

    One of the researchers behind last year’s pioneering stem cell windpipe transplant has revealed an early interest in medicine.

    Anthony Hollander, of the University of Bristol, has revealed that as a child in 1973 he wrote to British children’s TV programme – and national institution – Blue Peter to request help, with better spelling than mine at age nine:

    This may seem very strange, but I think I no how to make people or animals alive. Why Im teling you is because I cant get the things I need.

    A list of what I need.
    1. Diagram of how evreything works (inside youre body)
    2. Model of a heart split in half, (both halvs)
    3. The sort of sering [syringe] they yous for cleaning ears (Tsering must be very very clean)
    4. Tools for cutting people open
    5. Tools for stiches
    6. Fiberglass box, 8 foot tall, 3 foot width.
    7. Picture of a man showing all the arteries.

  4. #4 Julie Stahlhut
    January 30, 2009

    I’ve always felt bad for overscheduled kids. I’m old enough to remember when very little play was organized. I’m also an only child who had to develop a significant capacity for daydreaming. I think that if I’d been scheduled to within an inch of my life as a kid, I’d have become a seriously damaged adolescent and a thoroughly bitter adult.

    Maybe this varies a lot, kid by kid and adult by adult, and some kids really do thrive on severe restrictions on their unstructured time. But to me the latter still feels like psychological torture, and there must be more of us out there.

  5. #5 amybuilds
    January 30, 2009

    Google is another hidden enemy of creativity these days. When my kids want to know how something works or what something is they want me to Google it. They want the “right” answer right away rather than spending time imagining what the answer could be or figuring out a way to arrive at the solution themselves.

    We are raising a different generation in a different world, I wonder how it will turn out.

  6. #6 amybuilds
    January 30, 2009

    Google is another hidden enemy of creativity these days. When my kids want to know how something works or what something is they want me to Google it. They want the “right” answer right away rather than spending time imagining what the answer could be or figuring out a way to arrive at the solution themselves.

    We are raising a different generation in a different world, I wonder how it will turn out.

  7. #7 martha michael
    January 30, 2009

    Finally- more about playing- Piaget and Vygotsky knew it..learning has to be in a social situation, and motivating.

    The closest to supported play in the education system today is based on an approach taken from a region in Italy- Reggio Emilia. There they put 12% of their municipal funds for preschool and CHILD-directed learning. yep! That’s right! The children get to play with whatever they have curiousity about..and find out stuff on their own. The teachers just help them get the materials that they need- to make whatever they want, make the connections between ideas on their own. Oh yes…the “artist teacher” is at the center of the approach, as well as the art studio. For example, in Columbus, Ohio at Columbus School for girls Preschoolers aged 3,4,and 5 developed and designed a squirrel village outside their classrooms after “Studying” the squirrels outside their windows. They figured out what they would like to have in their city or village, and designed the village. Parents assisted only by making the designs these kids came up with.
    Prodigys? hardly- just given the time to develop something overtiime..and with support, not by plying with information, the right answers, or nagging to “hurry up” to figure things out. It took the group of students several years till completion.
    At any rate, for development of decision -making skills and executive function, choices must be given and worked through.

  8. #8 Donna B.
    January 30, 2009

    It all sounds good to me, but I would never give a preschooler a screwdriver. Again. Most terrifying words my son ever said, “Mommy, I fixed it!”

  9. #9 jb
    January 31, 2009

    I agree that some downtime is necessary for all of us, children or adult. In regard to what Jonah writes about in the Daydream Aceiver article, however, I would say that not all adults day dream when their brains are in default mode. The activity of daydreaming has a relaxed, unhurried sense to it ,a reverie quality. Try getting into default mode yourself: just sit and do nothing for 5 minutes and observe what’s going on in your mind. Probably there’s a running commentary that starts up about ‘how am I doing?’. We run through our ‘to- do’ lists, rehash conversations, score our performances,and make plans in a random stream of consciousness. Apparently this happens not in the left or right hemisphere but in a strip of brain in between. I wonder if proper day dreaming occurs when the mind and body are more relaxed and the thoughts have slowed down some, and that this is more of a right hemisphere function with insights occuring from time to time?

  10. #10 Dan
    January 31, 2009

    Great article and comments. All parents with kids in organized youth sports (which includes me!) need to keep this in mind. I watch 10-16 year olds play basketball in a structured league setting with practices, etc., then watch them play pick-up games at the YMCA. Many more smiles, creative play-making and good times at the Y with no parents, coaches or refs.

  11. #11 Lee Pirozzi
    February 2, 2009

    We could use some unstructured learning to go with unstructured play, it seems – hopefully in the future. For a year, I told my three children a preposterous bedtime tale that grew more outlandish each night – instead of reading them a book. The characters remained the same while the adventures changed. When I read their journals sometimes now, I love their unruly storytelling that is accompanied frequently by creature illustrations. When I knew something was bothering them, I would try to abstractly
    weave a resolution or differentiating point of view in the tale.

    By the way – I enjoyed reading your new book. Best of luck
    in the future on the promising decisions of literature and life you’ve made recently.

  12. #12 Drew
    March 28, 2010

    I think the researchers underestimate the amount of time there is for daydreaming while in school, lol. I watched a hell of a lot of TV as a kid, but I was constantly daydreaming in school, and I would even do so when watching TV to be honest, but I guess with any multitasking it was somewhat stunted.

  13. #13 ny gal
    September 26, 2010

    It saddens me how many parents have refused playdates with my son and theirs because they are so overscheduled with
    structured activities. My son, being an only child, cherishes his friends greatly, and his friends cherish him. but the mom of these boys refuse to allow much free playtime. IT is very disturbing and sad that this world has come to this…these parents think that running their kids around for travel soccer, chess club, football, and all these other activities are so important instead of playing with friends in a non-structured environment.

  14. #14 Elena
    December 4, 2010

    I agree with you, ny gal. I constantly run into the same thing.
    My daughter is also an only child (hopefully more will be on the way some day), and so many people consider free play to be at the bottom of their “important” list.

    It is quite sad to see, and makes it difficult for my daughter to get free play with a regular set of friends, though we can go to the park any time and play with random people met there for a few hours.

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