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Why ‘Catching Up’ is Education’s Job, Not Children’s

So, there is warming news amidst the disheartening reading around young mental health and the impact of Covid. A new push to counter that is emerging; ‘help kids recover through a ‘summer of play’. 

Amen to that! A summer of play is exactly what children deserve.
BUT the impact of play goes WAY deeper than children’s rights.
Play will certainly help children to heal, but the evolutionary purpose of play explains why it is not just the work of childhood, and certainly not just ‘a summer’.

Kittens & puppies play instinctively. But they are actually learning to hunt. These play behaviours are driven by the ‘survival brain’… Because if you can’t find food, you’ll die.
Pioneered by neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, ‘Affective Neuroscience’ discovered that, hard-wired deep into this very ancient part of the brain; not just in puppies and kittens, but in all mammals; is, amongst other emotional survival systems, a ‘play circuit’.

And as a mammalian species, humans too have inherited this neurological gift; Every one of us is literally ‘wired for play’.
Children know how to play instinctively, not because ‘it’s fun’, but because it’s a neurodevelopmental building block.

But the next bit is where it gets really interesting;
The ‘Play circuit’ is not alone. There are 6 more ‘emotional circuits’ hard-wired in the survival brain…
The only other one I’m explaining today is the ‘Fear circuit’, because ‘Fear’ has an interactive relationship with ‘Play’; It’s not possible for ‘circuits’ to be active at the same time.
In short, that means you turn off the ‘Fear’ switch simply by pressing ‘PLAY’!

And while fear may not be obvious in young people, let’s not underestimate what the last year has taught them.
For everything the restrictions and multiple lockdowns have achieved, teaching kids that the world is a safe & reliable place to be isn’t one of them.
Can’t the future be trusted? No.
Can they trust themselves? Not likely, when they’ve lost all their own agency.
Where is the sense of belonging, the security of human connectedness upon which the ‘survival brain’ relies to ‘feel safe’? Still missing…

And while I don’t deny that kids are resilient, they; like every mammal on the planet; all operate on ‘survival first’.
They may not be thinking ‘I’m afraid, I’m anxious, I’m isolated’ because the survival brain doesn’t operate within conscious awareness.
1 in 6 young people now meet the diagnostic criteria for mental ill health. The stats are telling us what’s happening inside young people’s heads. (I’m just explaining why…)

So I close today by saying that play is more than just a children’s right. It is not just for EYFS or the work of early childhood. All young people need more it in their diet; their mental health, their brain development relies on it!
And the right to play need not compete with the ‘catch up’ agenda.
We all know, children do not need to ‘catch up’ with their education.
We all know, in fact, that it’s education itself that needs to ‘catch up’ with children; with the science that’s been telling us for years how children have neurobiologically evolved to learn, all by themselves….


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