Parents and teachers will have been indoctrinated into the concept of play as a learning tool. It is important (we are told) for young children to have play-time in order to develop – gross motor skills, fine motor skills, social skills and an understanding of how to world works. Children who have been deprived of this opportunity (think of the terrible plight of Romanian orphans in the 1980s) have significant deficits in both their older childhood and their adulthood. Not to say that these things can’t be overcome, but the experiences of the child at an age when their brain connections are still forming can set the dominant and used connections for life. It’s pretty tough for an old brain to learn new tricks (connections).
For first-world parents, of course, this translates into guilt. Are you providing the right kind of play experiences? Are you providing the right kind of educational toys? Is your child hitting all of their milestones at the right time? Ka-ching, Ka-ching – the multinational toy companies know what you are thinking and they know how to press your buttons! (Click here for suggestions of the sorts of toys from which children really benefit. )
However a couple of recent articles have indicated how ingrained the concept of play is, and how it has played a survival function in evolution. Leading “play studies” scientist (there’s another job I want!) and author of Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, Stuart Brown theorises that evolution favours those animals that are able to produce additional superfluous neural connections (eg through play) – connections that just might come in handy some time. Play keeps the brain flexible and helps it to think laterally and problem-solve. It helps you to develop courage and confidence to try new thinks
Author and former Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Dr Marc Bekoff says animals have rules about when and how to play. The rules are as follows:
1.Everyone must want to play.
2.Everyone has to cooperate — they work together — to keep the game from becoming fighting. (NOte to my children: wild animals know the difference between playing and fighting…..)
3.Everyone needs to communicate and pay attention to each other’s movements, sounds and smells.
Put that way, it’s obvious what benefit a senseless and trivial activity like play must have for animals – and humans. Play behaviour has been observed in mammals, reptiles, insects and fish – and probably other categories of animals as well.
The second play article that crossed my desk in the last two days is about starving polar bears playing with a sled dog (as opposed to eating it). As well as featuring a video link of starving wild polar bears playing with sled dogs, this article also refers to evidence that animals that play tend to live longer and pass on their genes. (Of course it is also possible that animals that play are more attractive to the opposite sex….. but that’s just my take on things, not anything scientifically based!)
Play Scientist Stuart Brown’s book is available here: Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul
Interested in Neuroscience? Can I recommend the following book by UK neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield: Tomorrow’s People: How 21st-Century Technology Is Changing the Way We Think and Feel