Why play is ‘brain food’ for young children

08/21/2013  |  By ERICA WILSON GOLDTHORP, M.S.
Early Childhood

In a world of tests, curricula and standards, for even the youngest children, it is easy to forget the most basic learning task of childhood — play. Play is often seen by school administrators as a waste of time and is quickly being replaced with lessons, instructions and tests to ensure American children remain competitive in a fast-paced world. As educators, parents and policymakers debate and work to “fix” our broken education system, we should not lose sight of the benefits of structured and unstructured play and the amazing impact it has on a young child’s developing brain.

This concept of play is nothing new. As educators, the foundation of our own knowledge is rooted in the work of theorists such as Piaget, Vygotsky and others who argued that play has an important role in helping children both practice what they have learned and construct new knowledge.

You may have heard the statement, “Ninety percent of brain development happens by the age of three.” This statement is simply a myth and advanced brain development research tells us that brain development begins before birth and continues throughout life. In the first few years of life, the total number of connections in the brain increases steadily until about three or four years of age, when unused connections are eliminated. Between four and six years of age, the brain continues to strengthen and refine connections for memory, problem-solving and language and can process information more quickly.

There is no mistake that the early years are the most critical for laying the foundation for a lifetime of learning. The relationships and experiences children have in the early years are crucial for healthy brain development. However, this does not mean we, as educators, administrators, policymakers and parents, must scramble to “teach” as many concepts as possible before we lose the opportunity. While teaching concepts is certainly important, one simple fact remains among the plethora of brain development research — early experiences, like play, have a profound impact on a young child’s development, and lay the foundation for a lifetime of learning. Equally important are the life skills — problem solving, decision-making, getting along with others — that children begin to develop through play.

Many adults think of play as something a child does to fill the time between activities. In reality, play is one of the most essential activities a child can engage in throughout his day and the primary way a child learns about the world. Experts in the field of child development often call play “the work of childhood.” In fact, as play has become less tolerated in education, there is more and more research that supports its value to brain development.

As infants, children first begin to explore and learn through their senses. With repeated experience, the networks of connections responsible for processing sensory information become more complex. As children get older, play provides an opportunity for a child to try out new materials and explore in ways they never have before. Exploration through the senses, such as touching and manipulating objects, helps strengthen and expand connections in the brain. The information a child brings in through his senses creates the basis for forming new connections and repetition of experiences strengthens these connections.

Play is also an opportunity for a child to experiment with cause and effect. A child tries out new actions and observes what happens. When a preschooler builds a tall tower from blocks and then knocks it down, he learns about cause and effect. By experimenting, the child learns what happens next — I build a tower, knock it down, start over and build something new — and so reinforces networks of brain connections that will aid in the development of problem-solving skills. We can all agree that problem-solving skills are critical as children get older, become adolescents, then grow into adults.

There is also an incredible social and emotional element related to play. What happens when the preschooler builds a tall tower from blocks only to have a classmate walk by and knock it down? Or what about the negotiation that happens on the playground when children identify their roles in a game of hide-and-seek? If two children are arguing over who gets to be “it,” in a game of tag, do you intervene? Many experts would argue that parents and teachers intervene to solve problems for children all too often. A healthy conflict during play gives children the opportunity to negotiate and work through their own problems — a skill they will most definitely need as adolescents and adults. Certainly, many children may need help reaching a resolution, but your role is to guide them through problem solving instead of forcing your judgment on the situation. Through imaginary games and opportunities for self-direction, children learn how to get along with others, be OK when something doesn’t go their way, and resolve their own conflicts.

Play is by nature a self-directed activity and offers children the opportunity to practice decision-making. The child decides if he wants to play, what he wants to play, how he will do what he chooses, whether to play with others or alone, and when to switch to another activity. As he explores being a parent, a teacher, or a firefighter, his brain builds networks of connections that expand his understanding of how the world works.

“Accidental” learning happens all the time when children are allowed the freedom to try something new and let their imaginations run wild. In the act of playing with something new, a child may also “accidentally” do something he didn’t know he could do. For example, a child playing with modeling clay will learn that he can manipulate the clay into any object he wants. He may begin by rolling the clay between his hands and notice the clay gets longer and thinner as he works. That long piece of clay becomes a snake, and then the snake turns into a circle.

You can help facilitate learning by asking questions, suggesting new ways to use an object, or encouraging children to use their imaginations. Playtime isn’t break time for the teacher. Rather, the teacher should be an active participant, guiding children in exploration. The endless possibilities of discovery make play a valuable tool for expanding and strengthening brain connections.

While your role as an educator is to make sure children learn the concepts they need to move on to the next task, the next grade, and the next stage of life, it is also your job to expose children to new experiences and people, provide them with new materials, and give them time and space to explore. You are the facilitator of learning. The challenge is to view play through a new lens. See the language and literacy skills developing as children tell a made-up story or discuss their roles during dramatic play. Math happens when children count and divide up for teams. Children refine their fine motor skills by working puzzles and stacking blocks. Learning happens even if it isn’t driven by classroom instruction or worksheets.

Being responsible for a child’s learning is a big task. But just as a farmer prepares the soil to harvest a bountiful crop, enriching experiences like play help children form connections in their brains to establish a firm base for a lifetime of learning.

Erica Wilson Goldthorp, M.S. is Curriculum Specialist for Pro Solutions Training.
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