Play Broadens and Deepens the Mind


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

Thanks to the findings of Dr. Stuart Brown and other play scientists, we now know that more play, rather than less play, will maximize learning. Play maximizes learning by enhancing both the breadth and depth of our minds.

From a neurological perspective, playing broadens our brains’ capacities by forming new neural connections. It broadens children’s minds by teaching them to be creative thinkers and innovative problem-solvers. As Brown explains, play fosters creativity and innovation because much of play takes place in an imaginary world. When children play, they mix fantasy and reality, “activating different regions of the brain to synergistically integrate their function.” Because it is in the end “just a game,” they can push their own limits without risk of failure. In this way, play is crucial to developing the mental flexibility and agility that distinguish creative people.

Faced with global competition, businesses are increasingly realizing that creativity and innovation are the key to success. Brown writes about when the world’s leading space technology lab, Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), wanted to understand why its engineers tended to be less creative and innovative in their problem-solving than those from previous generations. JPL found that its older engineers had worked with their hands a lot when they were children, taking apart clocks, built hi-fi stereos, fixed appliances, etc. Young engineering graduates who as children had also worked with their hands for the sheer joy of it likewise displayed the creative problem-solving skills sought by JPL. But those who hadn’t generally did not. Since then, Brown reports, questions about the childhood play behavior of job applicants have become a standard part of the interview process at JPL.

No doubt, creativity and innovation will play an even bigger role in the 21st century than in the last. In the business world, companies, and not only those in the technology sector, will increasingly come to realize that innovation is the name of the game. And to win that game they will have to hire creative talent‒people who have had ample opportunity to play as children. If such people cannot be found, innovation, like manufacturing and customer service, will simply be outsourced to other countries. To some extent this is already happening, as cutting-edge technology companies like Google have found it necessary to fill some of their ranks with foreign talent. Even top-rated universities like MIT and California Institute of Technology are apparently not producing enough creative talent at this point to meet industry demand.

It stands to reason that the academic world will eventually have to respond to the rising demand for creative workers by assigning much greater value to creative problem-solving skills than is presently the case. At that point, students who can draw upon a rich, varied play history will have a clear edge over those who can’t.

So much for broadening the mind. Let us now turn to how play deepens its abilities.
We learn any one thing best, it turns out, when at play. Whatever the activity, peak performance is achieved in a state known as “flow.” According to Daniel Goleman, author of the widely acclaimed book Emotional Intelligence, flow describes a state of effortless mastery, a state in which people are so focused on a task, they lose all sense of time, place and self. They are fully immersed in the moment and are not concerned with how they are doing. They are motivated not by success or failure, but simply by the joy of doing whatever they are doing. Yet, their responses are perfectly attuned to the challenges at hand, and they perform at their peak or beyond.

Flow is what enables athletes, for example, to break records and set new personal bests. But flow can be experienced by anyone and involve any number of different tasks. Goleman relates the story of a surgeon who was so focused on what he was doing during a challenging operation that he didn’t notice part of the ceiling in the operating room caving in. Whatever the activity, flow enables us to give our very best. It means that our brain is operating at peak efficiency.

In this way, learning is no different from other activities. Drawing on a study of students at a special high school for the sciences, Goleman explains that high academic achievers report being in flow much of the time when they are studying, while low academic achievers do not. This suggests that high academic achievers tend to derive intrinsic enjoyment from their studies, whereas low achievers do not. In other words, it is the students who study for the sake of learning that do best in school. They are motivated not by test scores, but rather by the feeling of pleasure they derive from studying. They are not “working hard” when they study. Rather, they are “playing hard.”

The effect of flow on the learning process has radical implications for the way in which we should teach our children. It means that if we truly want to maximize the learning success of each and every child, we must find ways of teaching that allow each and every student‒not just the relatively small minority that happen to thrive on academics the old-fashioned way‒to be in flow, to be at play, when studying. Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner, renowned for his development of the multiple intelligence model, sums it up nicely:

Flow is an internal state that signifies a kid is engaged in a task that’s right. You have to find something you like and stick to it. It’s when kids get bored in school that they fight and act up, and when they’re overwhelmed by a challenge that they get anxious about their schoolwork. But you learn your best when you have something you care about and you can get pleasure from being engaged in.

Ultimately, the flow model of learning would not only motivate a greater number of students, but also promote higher levels of achievement. For a child (or adult) will experience flow only as long as the activity is challenging enough. This will tend to make children push their own limits in order to stay in the state of flow, which in turn will boost their skill levels. Over time, the result is seemingly effortless‒playful‒mastery of whatever skills a child has chosen to learn, be it math, science, business, music, art, sports or any other discipline. In his research, Brown has found that this is precisely what distinguishes highly successful people, such as top scientists or CEOs, from the rest of us‒they excel at their work because they love what they do. They are actually playing, not working. Flow is, as it were, nature’s way of rewarding us for being true to our own souls, rather than doing what others expect of us.

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