Play: It’s not Rocket Science, but it is Neuroscience

Wednesday 11 Dec 2019

Our busy society tends to dismiss play as a nonsensical waste of time. In our quest for unmatched intelligence and our desire to give our children the best start in life we buy into the belief that, if starting to understand multiplication at age seven will bring about quality outcomes, then starting at age five will surely result in even greater outcomes.

Study after study reveals that, while imposing intense academic demands on young children may result in comparable academic gains in the early years, these demands do not put children on a faster or stronger trajectory in the long term. In fact, studies show that in terms of future academic performance and career success, peers who experience an authentically play-based childhood habitually overtake their peers who engaged with a formal curriculum or structured learning from a young age.

Neuroscience helps us to understand why.

While theories about right and left brain dominance have been debunked, evidence exists that blood flow is greater to the right brain hemisphere in the early years. The right brain is most creative. It specialises in such things as imagination, emotion, intuition, attentiveness and personal identity. The left brain hemisphere specialises in the more analytical brain functions such as language and numeracy. Typically it is not until age seven that the left brain has capacity to equitably partner alongside the right brain.

In many Western countries, children are expected to exercise their left brain during the right brain’s dominant years. At an age when children should be sitting to take a break from running, society tells them to run to take a break from sitting. Society finds herself perplexed and frustrated in subsequent years as children feverishly play catch-up to develop right brain skills during the reign of the left brain. It’s unnatural and it’s exhausting.

Finnish children do not normally engage in formal curriculum until age seven. In the early years, Finnish children develop skills that serve as a strong foundation for a lifetime of learning such as self-regulation, tenacity, resilience, creativity, collaboration and attentiveness. How? Through play. With time, space and freedom, Finnish children try new things, take risks, fall over and pick themselves up. They engage in exploration sans adult intervention and they figure things out for themselves. They grow in independence and discover their abilities and limitations. Standardised testing is not imposed on Finnish children. Finland’s academic results – as well as the fact that the nation has been named the world’s happiest country (again!) – are evidence that this country is serving its future generations well.

A study released last year by the American Academy of Paediatrics states, ‘Play is not frivolous: it enhances brain structure and function and promotes executive function (ie, the process of learning, rather than the content), which allows us to pursue goals and ignore distractions. When play … [is] missing in a child’s life, toxic stress can disrupt the development of executive function and the learning of prosocial behaviour.’ In addition to this, there is a seemingly endless list of research that links anxiety, depression and poor fundamental learning characteristics with a lack of authentic free play. In our society’s desperate desire to set children on the path of success, our early imposition of academia is, in fact, failing them.

Recalibration is not insurmountable. Recognising that play is an essential element of learning and childhood (and adulthood, for that matter!) has the capacity to positively impact the maturity of children as we support brain development in line with its natural evolution.

My prayer for you and your family is that you will audaciously revel in every playful opportunity that exists this summer break: unstructured play, outdoor play, barefoot play, risky play, rough and tumble play, belly-laughing play, imaginative play, exploratory play, boredom play, independent play and cooperative play. Release yourselves of the intense pressure some feel within Australian society to always be ‘on’ and ‘intentional’ and ‘structured’ and ‘outcomes driven’. Rest in the knowledge that recreation and fun are not only beneficial; they’re life-giving. Take a leaf out of the Finns’ book and thrive in the restoration of childhood and the joy of play.

Read more about the importance of play:

- Jane Mueller, Principal