Early Childhood Opinion

The Importance of Play

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — April 03, 2014 5 min read
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Play energizes us and enlivens us. It eases our burdens. It renews our natural sense of optimism and opens us up to new possibilities. - Stuart Brown, M.D.

Morale is reported to be pretty low these days. So much to do and so little time, or so it seems. The rhetoric in the public airwaves is filled with polarizing information: raising standards, assessing achievement, measuring effective teaching vs. what is good for kids - making students college and career ready vs. social emotional health. It doesn’t have to be that way. We can do what is good for kids and their social emotional health and raise standards, assess achievement, and measure effective teaching at the same time. But it requires a skillful dance on the part of school leadership. We are rushing to learn, teach, and change with seriousness of purpose. Adults, after all, are supposed to be serious, aren’t we? And as we bring that seriousness into our work in schools, we impose that seriousness onto the students. Is it an unintended consequence or are we thinking students have to get serious too? We have trivialized play to be an optional activity, relegated to children, and only as an extracurricular activity. What if we understood play to be as important as good nutrition, healthy sleep habits, and mental health?

Enter the work of Dr. Stuart Brown. Trained in general and internal medicine, psychiatry and clinical research, he became interested in the importance of play when his study of homicidal young males began with the University of Texas Tower mass murderer, Charles Whitman. From the National Institute for Play:

A lifelong lack of play deprived him (Whitman) of opportunities to view life with optimism, test alternatives, or learn the social skills that, as part of spontaneous play, prepare individuals to cope with life stress. The committee concluded that lack of play was a key factor in Whitman’s homicidal actions - if he had experienced regular moments of spontaneous play during his life, they believed he would have developed the skill, flexibility, and strength to cope with the stressful situations without violence. Dr. Brown’s subsequent research of other violent individuals concludes that play can act as a powerful deterrent, even an antidote to prevent violence. Play is a powerful catalyst for positive socialization.

Here, much better explained in his own words:

We are faced with students demonstrating bullying behaviors and who seem to have underdeveloped social skills. We know many of our students lack perseverance and grit. We try to help them by teaching them how to respond in the face of bullies. We discipline the children who have become bullies, and try with all our might to council them. We wonder about what makes a child grow into a violent person...and worse, what makes a child grow into a violent teenager. And we wonder why children lack perseverance. How are we to build these skills if we spend our days filling theirs with more and more academic work and offer fewer opportunities to develop them?

Dr. Brown has conducted over 6,000 play histories ranging from homicidal inmates in the Texas prison system to numerous Nobel Laureates. His broad based evaluations of highly creative individuals reveled the centrality of playfulness to their success and well-being. (Playnovation).

We have focused on the value of high academic standards. We have focused on the value of moral behaviors and caring for the community, and empathy. But we may not be achieving what could be achieved if we had a deeper understanding of play. Let’s invite the idea that understanding play may be as important as literacy. What do we feel when we talk about play? What is play? Do or Should adults play? Do we know how to play? Do we understand what play can develop in the human mind? Do we understand what happens to those who fail to have those experiences?

For most of us, our experience in understanding the importance of play has been relegated to our study of early childhood education. Piaget, Vygotsky, and Montessori all elevated the value of play for young children in its role in social and cognitive development.

As children participate in make-believe play, they are practicing regulating behavior naturally - they regulate other children by telling them what to do; they regulate themselves by staying in their roles and trying not to do anything that might interrupt the flow of the play; and they are regulated by other children when they agree to roles and rules that may not be the ones they had in mind (Mooney. p.112).

Dr. Brown takes those ideas further to include all of childhood, and adulthood. In childhood it serves as an essential learning process and in both childhood and adulthood it serves as the space in which to wonder, ponder, imagine, and yes, learn. This type of learning cannot be measured on a standardized test, it will be measured by the level of civility, joy, and confidence developed as children are offered the space in which to have these essential incidental learning experiences. And what of adults? Everyone will benefit from our stepping away from our entrenched positions to create the space to imagine how to help our students grow and achieve as happy, well-adjusted humans.

What do most Nobel Laureates, innovative entrepreneurs, artists and performers, well-adjusted children, happy couples and families, and the most successfully adapted mammals have in common? They play enthusiastically throughout their lives. - Stuart Brown, Institute of Play.

Let’s not leave play on the back burner. Let’s take the time to learn about it and bring it back into the lives of everyone in our schools. Research has deemed it as important as good nutrition and good sleep habits. It has been recognized as a factor in developing positive social emotional skills and talent. Why not take the role of play to heart - learn and understand the research and face the bias that allows play to be marginalized and trivialized. We may have forgotten its value but we can bring it back...and include play as an essential priority.

Mooney, Carol G. (2013). Theories of Childhood: Second Edition. St. Paul, Minn.: Red Leaf Press

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.