Drive by an elementary school playground and safely stop somewhere nearby and just listen. If you’re lucky, you just might hear the sounds of students taking a walk on the wild side in the confines of imaginary settings, rough and tumble games, or vibrant role plays.
These joyful sounds are the attributes of play that effortlessly flow from within a child’s mind. Thankfully, these ancient behaviors do not require adult prodding, systematic assessments, or formal curriculum planning. No, tapping into the marvels of play only requires opportunity, imagination, and an open mind in order to strike into what evolution has already put into place.
Tragically, for a myriad of reasons, America’s school systems foster environments that systematically deprives students of play throughout all levels of public schooling. Yet, in this intense period of achievement mania, we colossally fail to develop students soft skills, such as emotional intelligence or personality traits, that research convincingly opines are much more relevant to a person’s chances for success in life. For example, author’s Heckman and Kautz state that achievement tests miss, or perhaps more accurately, do not adequately capture, soft skills — personality traits, goals, motivations, and preferences that are valued in the labor market, in school, and in many other domains (Heckman & Kautz 2012). Conveniently, play taps into biological systems that evolution has already fine tuned for developing critical social skills through playful interactions featuring normal give-and-take scenarios ever present in social situations (Brown 2009).
So why did play survive the evolutionary chopping block? Evolution works by changing inherited characteristics of biologic populations over time. These characteristics either help a species survive, thrive, and repopulate, or become extinct. Much of our characteristics have evolved over millions of years, and typically, serve a very specific function. As it turns out, play does just that. It provides a unique platform to acquire essential skills that permeate both the animal and human kingdom. For example, animals that play a lot quickly learn how to navigate their world and adapt to it. In short, they are smarter. Moreover, there is a strong positive link between brain size and playfulness for mammals in general (Brown 2009).
Renowned play researcher, Jaak Panksepp contends that optimal brain development depends on healthy play experiences in early life and he observes that over the long evolutionary haul, play has promoted social bonds and nourished social learning (Panksepp 2010). Interestingly, humans have a play period, or time span, where play spontaneously exists of a minimum of 15 years, which extends significantly longer than comparable mammals. Thus, it becomes possible for the transfer of juvenile characteristics, such as exhibited during play, to become characteristics of adulthood. According to Dr. Stuart Brown, this is a major theme in evolution. Since early development is a time when the nervous system is most “plastic,” an advantage that neoteny, which describes the stretching of juvenile periods, bestows is extended openness to change, and sustained curiosity, as well as the ability to readily incorporate new information (Brown 2009). In essence, play opens a biological doorway to learning that already exists. All educators need to do is learn how to open it.
So what are the characteristics of play? Well, according to play researcher Dr. Stuart Brown, play exhibits the following:
- Apparently purposeless
- Inherent attraction
- Freedom from time
- Diminished consciousness of self
- Improvisational potential
- Continuation desire
In a nutshell, play is done for its own sake, is not obligatory, makes you feel good, eliminates a sense of time passage, temporarily shuts down the overt thinking process, evokes the sensation of “flow”, dissolves the rigidity of doing things a certain way, fosters pleasure that drives more desire to play, and puts people into a positive emotional state. Furthermore, brain research has discovered that the amount of play is correlated to the development of the brain’s frontal cortex, which is the important brain region responsible for much of what we call cognition: discriminating relevant from irrelevant information, monitoring and organizing our own thoughts and feelings, and planning for the future. Interestingly, the cerebellum’s rate and size of growth is correlated to each species length of play period, which brain research now suggests that the cerebellum is responsible for key cognitive functions such as attention, language, processing, sensing musical rhythm, and more (Brown 2009). Amazingly, the part of the brain that processes movement is the same part of the brain that processes learning (Jensen 2005). Play also promotes the creation of new connections that didn’t exist before, new connections between neurons and between disparate brain centers. Play seems to be a driving force helping to sculpt how the brain continues to grow and develop (Brown 2009). Now, from an educator’s perspective, do any of the aforementioned elements sound valuable to learning in general?
So how does play help with school? Under today’s educational environments, it is most likely that students are becoming drained or deficient of joy, curiosity, excitement, or optimism, and becoming more despondent, unmotivated, apathetic, or hopeless by the shear fact that school is not a fun place to be. Mind and emotions are not separate; emotions, thinking, and learning are all linked. What we feel is what’s real—even if only to us and no one else. Emotions organize and create our reality (Jensen 2005). With this said, it seems essential that we provide activities that tap into the brain’s primary neurotransmitter for pleasure called dopamine. The joy and pleasure areas of the brain actually form a pathway from an area near the brain stem known as the ventral tegmental area. From there the “pleasure chemical” dopamine pushes outward toward the front of the brain and concentrates in the nucleus accumbens. This state is absolutely essential for all learning (Jensen 2005). In addition, as children, our reward for play is strong because we need it to help generate a rapidly developing brain. As adults, the brain is not developing as rapidly and the play drive may not be as strong, so we can do well enough without play in the short term. Our work or other responsibilities often demand we set play aside. But when play is denied over the long term, our mood darkens. We lose our sense of optimism and we become anhedonic, or incapable of feeling sustained pleasure (Brown 2009). Who knew that play is not only an essential evolutionary component, but a transformative mechanism for learning in general. In essence play can help promote:
- Better learning states
- More adaptive regulatory behaviors or enhanced emotional intelligence
- Enhanced optimism and creativity
- Better working brains
- More open to change, new ideas, and learning in general
So that begs the question: Why Not Play? A twenty-first century education requires a twenty-first century learning environment. One that enhances imagination, creativity, risk-taking, and development of effective social intelligence skills. Not one that stifles, inhibits, or just kills the innate biological traits supportive of learning in general. Emotion can facilitate or inhibit learning. It can turn off the ability to think and to be creative, or it can facilitate thinking, creativity, and the cementing of enduring memory for content (Kagan 2014). In his seminal book, Out of Our Minds, Sir Ken Robinson believes that creativity is the greatest gift of human intelligence. The more complex the world becomes, the more creative we need to be to meet its challenges. Yet, many people wonder if they have any creative abilities at all (Robinson 2011). Play allows humans to transcend the ordinary and enter the world of possibility, creativity, social development, and positive learning states. Extending these periods of play within the boundaries of the learning environment gives the educator the advantage of making learning more memorable, more meaningful, and, simply put, more fun. For example, why not take a three minute vacation or play break in class to reduce fatigue, stress, or boredom. So, that brings us back to the central question: Why Not Play? What are you doing to make your learning environment more playful in order to take advantage of what evolution has already given the human race.
Brown, Stuart. (2009) Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, Penguin, New York.
Heckman, J., & Kautz, T., (2012) Hard Evidence on Soft Skills. Discussion Paper No. 6580. Institute for the Study of Labor
Panksepp, J. (2010). Science of the Bran as a Gateway to Understanding Play: An Interview with Jaak Panksepp. American Journal of Play, Winter of 2010.
Jensen, E. (2005). Teaching with the Brain in Mind, 2nd edition. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Virginia.
Kagan, S. (2014). Brain Friendly Teaching. Kagan Publishing, California.
Robinson, K. (2011). Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative. Capstone Publishing LTD. United Kingdom.