BC Council for Families: Where Do the Children Play?

Photo Credit: Unsplash User Mi Pham

Photo Credit: Unsplash User Mi Pham

April Martin-Ko, writing a blog post for the BC Council for Families, cites Dr. Peter Gray, Boston College developmental psychologist and author of the book Free to Learn:  Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life, who has compiled a list of five characteristics that define play:

  1. Play is self-chosen and self-directed
  2. Play is intrinsically motivated – means are more valued than ends
  3. Play is guided by mental rules, but the rules leave room for creativity
  4. Play is imaginative
  5. Play is conducted in an alert, active, but relatively non-stressed frame of mind

In her article, Martin-Ko talks about the research evidence that has established the benefits of this type of play:

  • Accelerates brain growth and activity
  • Improves memory
  • Stimulates the growth of the cerebral cortex
  • Triggers the secretion of BDNF, a substance essential for the growth of brain cells
  • Key to the development of divergent problem-solving skills (divergent problems yield multiple solutions)
  • Associated with intense thought activity and rapid intellectual growth

She quotes N.V. Scarfe (UBC’s first Dean of Education) who said, “The highest form of research is essentially play.”

Based on research done in 2012, Dr. Rachel White produced a paper for the Minnesota Children’s Museum on The Power of Play.  She states that “while experts continue to expound a powerful argument for the importance of play in children’s lives, the actual time children spend playing continues to decrease.  Today, children play eight hours less each week than their counterparts did two decades ago (Elkind, 2008).  Under pressure of rising academic standards, play is being replaced by test preparation in kindergartens and grade schools, and parents who aim to give their preschoolers a leg up are led to believe that flashcards and educational ‘toys’ are the path to success.  Our society has created a false dichotomy between play and learning.”

Dr. White points out that it is ‘through play, children learn to regulate their behaviour, lay the foundations for later learning in science and mathematics, figure out the complex negotiations of social relationships, build a repertoire of creative problem solving skills” and more.  She also looks at the “important role for adults in guiding children through playful learning experiences”.

She points out, “Play presents children with a particularly strong opportunity for growth because it meets the needs of the whole, individual child.  All domains of children’s development – cognitive, social, emotional, and physical – are intricately intertwined.  Play benefits each of these skills in direct and indirect ways.  Children learn and practice cognitive skills including language, problem solving, creativity, and self-regulation.  Socio-emotional growth can be seen in children’s ability to interact with other, negotiate, and compromise.  They also practice strategies to cope with fear, anger, and frustration.  Moreover, block building, drawing, running, and jumping all contribute to the development of fine and gross motor skills.  When children have the chance to direct their own learning through play, they are able to address their own immediate and developmental needs and find activities that are most conducive their individual learning styles.”

The “6Cs”, many of which are not easily taught in a classroom but which develop organically through play, she notes as being the skills that are needed for success in adult life in our rapidly-changing world:

  • Collaboration
  • Strong Communication
  • Knowledge of Content
  • Critical thinking
  • Creative innovation
  • Confidence to fail and try again

The paper looks at social play (both with adults and with peers), object play, pretend play, physical play, and media play, and includes a section looking at how adults can facilitate play effectively with children.

In her blog post, Martin-Ko draws on the experience of Finland.  In the past decade “Finland has consistently performed among the top nations on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standardized test given to 15-year olds in 65 nations and territories around the world”.  After the 1960’s, when they were not getting good educational outcomes, Finland introduced “a system that was free and equitable for all, they reduced the amount of homework, and put a great deal of emphasis on free play for the youngest children, not requiring teachers to even teach reading to children until after the age of seven.”

A November, 2015 article in The Atlantic by Timothy Walker, took a look at the Finnish experience.  He interviewed Arja-Siska Holappa, a counselor for the Finnish National Board of Education, who emphasized that the country’s early-childhood education program places a heavy emphasis on ‘joy’, which, along with play, is explicitly written into the curriculum as a learning concept.  “There’s an old Finnish saying,” Holappa said. “Those things you learn without joy you will forget easily.”