Spring is almost here (according to the calendar at least!), and with warmer weather comes more opportunity for kids to get outside. This week, we are talking about why it is so important that kids have the chance to play. With the constant hustle and bustle of school activities, sports teams, tutors, classes, and homework, carving out time to allow children to just play is vital to their development.
First we should define what kind of play we mean. Children need to be allowed free, unregulated play with limited adult involvement. Think back to when you were a child and you were free to play outside, explore your neighborhood, climb trees, ride bikes, and only had to be home when the dinner bell rang. No coaches. No umpires. No rulebooks. Little parental intervention. That is the kind of play that is vital for neurological and physical development in children. I’ll explain why.
We are born with billions of neurons. These neurons are connected to a huge, intricate pattern of nerves throughout our bodies. Every thought, movement, feeling, and sensation translates into a message that is transmitted back to our brains, and processed through those neurons. As nerves are used, they grow. Just like muscle. And just like muscle, if they are not used, they do not grow.
So how does free play build the brain? Think of each of these skills as a weight to build their brain muscle! The more they “lift” these weights, the stronger their brain will get!
–Problem solving: The front of the brain (the prefrontal cortex) is largely responsible for problem solving; research has shown that free play creates significant developments in the prefrontal cortex. How? When playing with limited adult intervention, children are able to work through problems on their own, often coming up with creative solutions. They are able to figure out what works and what doesn’t through experimentation, and trial and error.
–Emotional Development: The prefrontal cortex also controls emotional regulation. They learn empathy. They learn to recognize emotions in others, and associate them with their own experiences. They learn perseverance and patience, accomplishment and confidence. They learn to regulate emotion by noticing how others respond to their actions.
–Communication: When playing, kids have to talk to each other. Often, they will even talk to themselves if they are playing alone! They have to explain the rules, sort out problems, and negotiate. We often see young children get frustrated when they are not able to articulate their feelings, this simply comes with practice. When allowed to practice communication within a safe, non-judgmental space with only their peers, they learn what effective communication is and what is not.
-Language: When children play, they are able to actively experience language. They experience prepositions over, under, through, between. They see and touch geometry. They act out verbs jump, run, fall, spin, swing. They feel adjectives: hard, soft, wet, dry. Playing allows children to experience language on a physical level, developing stronger correlations between concepts and reality.
-Behavior: How do you feel when a business meeting runs long? You start to get frustrated. Fidgety. You check your phone; tap your pencil; wiggle your foot; adjust your seat. Anything to move. Fidgeting is your brains way of asking for movement. How much better do you feel after you have had the opportunity to stretch your legs and take a quick walk? Your brain thrives on movement. Vigorous physical movement helps expel excess energy. Research has shown that after being allowed to play outside, children are often better able to focus and less fidgety.
–Motor Skills: Motor skills are the ability to perform complex neuromuscular actions; basically, the ability of muscles and nerves to “talk” to each other to make the body move appropriately. As babies grow and attempt different tasks, they are teaching their muscles and nerves how to talk to each other, and thus establish a connection to complete the action. Climbing trees, picking up sticks, building forts, throwing a ball. These actions all require children to move their joints and limbs through space. They strengthen the muscles, tendons, and ligaments. The feedback the brain receives from these movements from the muscles, bones, and joints all help to build motor skills.
–Balance: Spinning, falling, rolling are all actions that impact the vestibular (balance) system. In order to develop balance, children must experience balance and imbalance. Why is this important? Beyond the obvious implications for later in life, the body must understand and recognize imbalance to keep you balanced! How do you stay standing or sitting upright? Your brain recognizes the position of your body in space, and is actively working to keep you that way. Without the proper training (remember, your brain is like a muscle!), we see deficiencies in balance which often manifest in fidgeting like behaviors.
These are only a small sampling of the benefits kids get from free, outdoor play. Send your kids outside! Let them get dirty (it builds immunity)! Get out in the sun (Vitamin D)! Let them run, jump, skip, fall, spin, play. Their brains will thank you!