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We Grow Into, Not Out Of, Play…

As we emerge from the Covid restrictions, there is a call for a much-needed ‘summer of play’ for children in the UK.
As part of their ‘Summer of Play’ initiative, 50 Things To Do Before You’re 5 asked me to write a guest blog post explaining why play is not just ‘fun’, but is in fact essential for protecting and nurturing out children’s mental health.
Here is an excerpt from that blog with a link to the read the full article of you wish to continue reading…

”When I think of my own childhood play, I remember skipping ropes and roller skates and summer holidays that seemed to go on and on. They were always spent outside. Children made their own entertainment and adults were never around.  

Many of today’s kids will describe screen-based activities instead when asked about their play. This doesn’t reflect that children are changing though. What’s changing is the diet of play that we feed them.  

When we think of authentic, meaningful play, we tend to think of very young children first. But the truth is, while it certainly changes, our playfulness never goes away. Adolescents might be mortified to think of themselves as playing… All the while, gaming and play stations-in which they are the ‘players’-play a huge part in many of their lives. 

Why; when most of us play music, play a sport, watch a play, play games, role-play or play an instrument; do we not think of ourselves as playing? Neuroscience is now teaching us that play is a deeply profound part of the human experience, from birth. Play is not just the work of early childhood or something we switch off from by a certain age. And nor should we. 

While it’s true that our play needs change as we develop and grow up, the language of play throughout our lives reflects our need for play throughout our whole lives. There is no such thing as ‘too old to play’, and the innate desire to play that we observe in small children can teach us a lot, especially if we can play along with them…  

We can learn the most important lessons about play though, not from our children, but from other species entirely. Kittens in particular can be very cute… They make good social media videos for a reason. They are masters of play. But they do not merely play for its own sake… The kittens who hide behind doors or jump on dogs or wrestle with one another are actually tuning their hunting skills. As fun as it is; for them to do and for us to watch; this is also the stuff of survival. Because if you grow up, and you can’t feed yourself, you’ll die.
And this is the universal truth about play, across every mammalian species on earth, humans included. We are hard-wired to play. That is, when we are born, neural connections deep in our brain are ready to play, and that wiring will stay in place, for life. While not reflected in current educational policy, this knowledge is not particularly emerging.

Estonian neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp spent more than 40 years researching the field of study that became known as ‘Affective Neuroscience’; broadly, the study of animal emotion. 
Through that, he discovered 7 ‘primitive emotional systems’, including the PLAY system (which are all always capitalised in these terms to differentiate from the verb). The presence of these systems – in the primitive brain – can only mean one thing; play is designed to support our survival. It is the work of evolution which has been helping other species survive, long before the evolution of humans. This primitive brain is the foundation of everything we learn. All of our learning is built on top of and around this primitive brain. 

We all know that in the early years that play is accepted as a primary learning activity, but at an ever-younger age we have seen play progressively chiselled from children’s lives to make way for ‘learning’. In the hopeful emergence from Covid and the catch-up agenda left in its wake, longer school days and shorter school holidays have been bandied around. Many schools are choosing to shorten playtime. 

All of these approaches are back to front. They go completely against the neurodevelopmental process of learning. It’s time we stopped trying to direct and micromanage how children grow up, and recognise that their young brains are equipped to do that, all by themselves. They are not born with 86 billion brain cells in their heads for no reason… 

Continue on to the full post here…