Play and Learning

Play by Stuart Brown

Play, by Stuart Brown, is the best book to learn about the biological effects of play.

NOTE: This is the second of a three-part series on the value of play, by Robert Hess. The first article is entitled, Play’s Unfortunate Reputatlon, and the third article is entitled, Play Broadens and Deepens the Mind.

The relentless drive toward more academics and less play is beginning to generate a backlash. Some parents, like Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish, authors of the book The Case Against Homework, have become outspoken critics of our current education system. These parents are fed up with watching their children struggle through lengthy, tedious homework assignments every night and be judged and often demoralized by meaningless standardized tests.

Teachers are tired of “teaching to the test,” often to the exclusion of real learning, not to mention enjoyment.

And, perhaps most importantly, child development experts are beginning to reexamine whether play may not occupy an important role in the learning process after all. The American Academy of Pediatrics, for one, has stated unambigously that “play (or some available free time in the case of older children and adolescents) is essential to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth.”

The basic insight that play is a essential part of the learning process is not a new one. It goes back at least as far as Plato, who argued in The Republic that children learn best by play, not force. In fact, progressive educator and author Chris Mercogliano had the brilliance of mind to notice and bring to our attention that the ancient Greek words for education/culture (paideia), play (paidia), and children (paides) all have the same etymological root. For the ancient Greeks, it appears, children, education, and play formed a single whole.

Recent research on play behavior suggests that the ancient Greeks essentially had it right. Children, it turns out, learn best not through hard work, but through hard play. And play is not the opposite of work. Rather, it is an essential prerequisite for work and, in some cases, indistinguishable from work.

Dr. Stuart Brown, the foremost authority on play behavior in the U.S., describes research on the link between play and learning in his book, Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. Brown contends that play makes us smarter in the sense that it enables us to process new information, adapt to new situations, and handle complex social interactions better than other animals that play less. Without play, proper cognitive and emotional development cannot occur.

Drawing on comparative studies on animal play behavior, Brown explains that species with larger brains (relative to body size) play more than those that play less. Specifically, researchers have discovered that the amount of play in a given species is positively correlated to the development of the brain’s frontal cortex. This is the area of the brain that is responsible for discriminating relevant from irrelevant information, monitoring and organizing our thoughts and feelings, choosing between good and bad actions, overriding and suppressing unacceptable social responses, and performing other higher-order mental functions. The implication is that humans are both the most playful and also the most intelligent creatures on Earth.

Perhaps even more important, Brown notes, the time period of most intense play coincides with the most dramatic growth of the cerebellum, another critical part of the brain that is known to contain more neurons than the whole rest of the brain and is responsible for coordinating key functions in other parts of the brain. This correlation suggests that there is a sensitive period, a relatively narrow window, during which play helps stimulate brain development.

The exact mechanism by which play stimulates brain development is still unclear. However, Brown and other play researchers believe that play may be involved in a particular phase of brain development, known as terminal synaptogenesis, which coincides with the peak time of playful behavior. We are born with an overabundance of brain cells in the frontal cortex. During the process of terminal synaptogenesis, excess brain cells (neurons) and connections between neighboring neurons (synapses) are selectively eliminated.

Play, it is believed, aids in the process of synaptogenesis through simulation and testing. At play we imagine and experience new situations, create and test new possibilities, and learn and practice new skills and lessons in a safe environment. Because we are just playing, there is no risk in failure and we can push the envelope‒and thereby boost cognitive development without penalty. In this way, Brown and other play researchers hypothesize, play helps “sculpt” the brain.

This scientific evidence strongly suggests that play is critical to the development of higher-order mental functions, and that there is a certain window for play to do its job. In the third and last part of this series, I will present the science findings which show that play maximizes learning, including academic learning.

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