Elizabeth Florio

Once upon a time, scientists saw play as evolutionary fluff—a way for carefree young mammals to burn energy, maybe even to rehearse skills they’d need later in life, but not particularly crucial to survival. We now know better, and a rich body of research has emerged revealing the powerful cognitive and emotional benefits children derive from play. Here’s a quick primer. 

EVERYTHING WE KNOW ABOUT PLAY WE LEARNED FROM . . . RATS?

Okay, not everything. But it turns out rats are unique among rodents in that juveniles engage in vigorous social play. Pioneering neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp even discovered that rats laugh when tickled, emitting ultrasonic chirps of pleasure. Adorable, right?

Rats have shown us that the drive to play is deeply rooted: If you surgically remove an infant rat’s cerebral cortex, the part of the brain responsible for higher thought processing, he carries on playing. However, depriving a rat of playtime greatly impairs his higher brain function, especially social skills and executive function. He overreacts to harmless contact, for example, and performs cognitive tasks less adeptly.  

"A rich body of research has emerged revealing the powerful cognitive and emotional benefits children derive from play."

HOW WE PLAY

But enough about rats. What benefits do kids actually get from play? Let’s break it down by play type as outlined by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP):

    • Object play: Babies get sensory input when they mouth or bang toys. Young kids tinker with objects like little scientists, learn abstract concepts (when a banana subs in for a phone, for instance), and practice social skills such as sharing.
    • Physical play: Kids develop motor and social skills when they tackle the playground slide, play tag, and wrestle. They also combat childhood obesity.
    • Outdoor play: Fresh air regulates moods, gives sensory input, and focuses attention for learning. (Thus schools that offer more recess tend to see greater academic success.)
    • Pretend play: Dress-up and other role-playing games boost social skills, language, and creativity.

With the possible exception of outdoor play, parents needn’t go out of their way to facilitate the different categories. (We all know boxes and random household gadgets make the best toys, anyway.) Given the freedom, kids will make it happen. 

THE BIG TAKEAWAY 

The AAP urges schools and parents to prioritize play. The U.N. calls play a fundamental human right. Unfortunately, even in wealthy countries where toys and playgrounds are plentiful, busy schedules and safety concerns often get in the way. As Panksepp wrote in an article about ADHD and play deprivation: “At some point in our primate evolution, children had many companions with whom they freely engaged in natural surroundings on their own terms. That time has passed.”

That may be true, but parents can help. You may not feel comfortable opening your door and telling your child to “go play,” but you can seek out enriching play spaces, plan play dates, and most importantly, preserve plenty of unstructured time for kids to do what they’re hard-wired to do best.

Elizabeth Florio
Elizabeth Florio is an Atlanta-based writer and editor and mom of two small children. She loves when her "jobs" intersect and she gets to write about the joys and woes of parenting, even if, like everyone else, she's still figuring it all out.

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