When I was a kid my parents were always saying to me, “Why don’t you go outside and play?” And we did! My sister and I would climb on our jungle gym, swing, ride bikes, and do gymnastics in the yard. Even in the winter we would play. We regularly turned our basement into a scene from “The Little House on the Prairie” complete with blankets wrapped around our waists to simulate the long skirts. I know that I watched TV daily, but play was also a central part of my life.
We live in a time that offers very few opportunities for free, imaginative play. When my students used to write about what they did over the weekend, most of the time their answers include playing video games, or watching TV shows and movies. Even when I would probe to see if they were just forgetting about the other things they did, I often found no time in their day where they simply played. This is certainly true in schools. With high stakes testing, and competition among schools and districts, play is definitely being pushed to the side.
Yet brain research tells us that play is not only good for us, but many play-oriented movements have the capacity to improve cognition. Eric Jensen, author of Teaching with the Brain in Mind, says that
dance, puzzles, stretching, building with blocks, make-believe, drama and even walking are just a few examples of play. There are many reasons why play and physical activity are essential for the brain. It allows children to make mistakes without “lethal” consequences (with far less embarrassment and more fun than in a traditional classroom setting). It improves the ability to handle stress by “training” the body to recover faster from the quick surges of adrenaline associated with demanding physical activity…and classroom environments. It triggers the release of BDNK, which is natural substance enhances cognition by boosting the neurons’ ability to communicate with one another. It can enhance social skills, emotional intelligence, and conflict resolution ability.
One of my professors used to say that play is essential to the development of the frontal lobe, which is our decision making center. The frontal lobe continues to develop until around age 20, and yet play is often frowned upon after early childhood. So remember that some time today, you all have my permission to PLAY! No matter how old you are!