Play Research Papers

Taking Play Seriously


''Psychologists, public health officials, and educators are complaining children are not playing enough. But what's the big deal?''


On a drizzly Tuesday night in late January, 200 people came out to hear a psychiatrist talk rhapsodically about play — not just the intense, joyous play of children, but play for all people, at all ages, at all times. (All species too; the lecture featured touching photos of a polar bear and a husky engaging playfully at a snowy outpost in northern Canada.) Stuart Brown, president of the National Institute for Play, was speaking at the New York Public Library’s main branch on 42nd Street. He created the institute in 1996, after more than 20 years of psychiatric practice and research persuaded him of the dangerous long-term consequences of play deprivation. In a sold-out talk at the library, he and Krista Tippett, host of the public-radio program ‘‘Speaking of Faith,’’ discussed the biological and spiritual underpinnings of play. Brown called play part of the ‘‘developmental sequencing of becoming a human primate. If you look at what produces learning and memory and well-being, play is as fundamental as any other aspect of life, including sleep and dreams.’’

The message seemed to resonate with audience members, who asked anxious questions about what seemed to be the loss of play in their children’s lives. Their concern came, no doubt, from the recent deluge of eulogies to play . Educators fret that school officials are hacking away at recess to make room for an increasingly crammed curriculum. Psychologists complain that overscheduled kids have no time left for the real business of childhood: idle, creative, unstructured free play. Public health officials link insufficient playtime to a rise in childhood obesity. Parents bemoan the fact that kids don’t play the way they themselves did — or think they did. And everyone seems to worry that without the chance to play stickball or hopscotch out on the street, to play with dolls on the kitchen floor or climb trees in the woods, today’s children are missing out on something essential.
The success of ‘‘The Dangerous Book for Boys’’ — which has been on the best-seller list for the last nine months — and its step-by-step instructions for activities like folding paper airplanes is testament to the generalized longing for play’s good old days. So were the questions after Stuart Brown’s library talk; one woman asked how her children will learn trust, empathy and social skills when their most frequent playing is done online. Brown told her that while video games do have some play value, a true sense of ‘‘interpersonal nuance’’ can be achieved only by a child who is engaging all five senses by playing in the three-dimensional world.

This is part of a larger conversation Americans are having about play. Parents bobble between a nostalgia-infused yearning for their children to play and fear that time spent playing is time lost to more practical pursuits. Alarming headlines about U.S. students falling behind other countries in science and math, combined with the ever-more-intense competition to get kids into college, make parents rush to sign up their children for piano lessons and test-prep courses instead of just leaving them to improvise on their own; playtime versus résumé building.
Discussions about play force us to reckon with our underlying ideas about childhood, sex differences, creativity and success. Do boys play differently than girls? Are children being damaged by staring at computer screens and video games? Are they missing something when fantasy play is populated with characters from Hollywood’s imagination and not their own? Most of these issues are too vast to be addressed by a single field of study (let alone a magazine article). But the growing science of play does have much to add to the conversation. Armed with research grounded in evolutionary biology and experimental neuroscience, some scientists have shown themselves eager — at times perhaps a little too eager — to promote a scientific argument for play. They have spent the past few decades learning how and why play evolved in animals, generating insights that can inform our understanding of its evolution in humans too. They are studying, from an evolutionary perspective, to what extent play is a luxury that can be dispensed with when there are too many other competing claims on the growing brain, and to what extent it is central to how that brain grows in the first place.

Scientists who study play, in animals and humans alike, are developing a consensus view that play is something more than a way for restless kids to work off steam; more than a way for chubby kids to burn off calories; more than a frivolous luxury. Play, in their view, is a central part of neurological growth and development — one important way that children build complex, skilled, responsive, socially adept and cognitively flexible brains.

Their work still leaves some questions unanswered, including questions about play’s darker, more ambiguous side: is there really an evolutionary or developmental need for dangerous games, say, or for the meanness and hurt feelings that seem to attend so much child’s play? Answering these and other questions could help us understand what might be lost if children play less.
‘‘See how that little boy reaches for a pail?’’ Stuart Brown asked one morning last fall, standing with me on the fringes of a small playground just north of the Central Park Zoo. ‘‘See how he curves his whole body around it?’’ Brown had flown to New York from his home in California to pitch a book about play to publishers. (He sold the idea to an editor at Penguin.) He agreed to meet me at the zoo while he was in town, to help me observe playfulness in the young members of many animal species, including our own.
Social play has its own vocabulary. Dogs have a particular body posture called the ‘‘play bow’’ — forelegs extended, rump in the air — that they use as both invitation and punctuation. A dog will perform a play bow at the beginning of a bout, and he will crouch back into it if he accidentally nips too hard and wants to assure the other dog: ‘‘Don’t worry! Still playing!’’

Other species have play signals, too. Chimps put on a ‘‘play face,’’ an open-mouthed expression that is almost like a face of aggression except that the muscles are relaxed into something like a smile. Baboons bend over and peer between their legs as an invitation to play, beavers roll around, goats gambol in a characteristic ‘‘play gait.’’ In fact, most species have from 10 to 100 distinct play signals that they use to solicit play or to reassure one another during play-fighting that it’s still all just in fun. In humans, the analogue to the chimp’s play face is a child’s smile, an open expression that indicates there is no real anger involved even in gestures that can look like a fight.

The day Brown met me in the park was a cold one, and the kids were bundled up like Michelin Men, adding more than the usual heft and waddle to their frolicking. Even beneath the padding, though, Brown could detect some typical gestures that these 2- and 3-year-olds were using instinctively to let one another know they were playing. ‘‘Play movement is curvilinear,’’ he said. ‘‘If that boy was reaching for something in a nonplay situation, his body would be all straight lines. But using the body language of play, he curves and embraces.’’
In their play — climbing up a slide, running around, passing buckets back and forth — the kids we watched were engaging in a pattern of behavior that many scientists believe is hard-wired. Their mothers and nannies were watching, too, no doubt having dragged the kids out of comfortable Upper East Side apartments because they thought daily play was important somehow, perhaps the first step in the long march toward Yale. To me all that little-kid motion looked just a bit silly — because play is, in many ways, a silly thing. Indeed, an essential component of play is its frivolity; biologists generally use phrases like ‘‘apparently purposeless activity’’ in their definitions of play. The definition proposed by Gordon Burghardt, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Tennessee, refines that phrase a little. In his 2005 book, ‘‘The Genesis of Animal Play,’’ he wrote that play is an activity of ‘‘limited immediate function.’’

Burghardt included several other factors in his definition too. Play is an activity that is different from the nonplay version of that activity (in terms of form, sequence or the stage of life in which it occurs), is something the animal engages in voluntarily and repeatedly and occurs in a setting in which the animal is ‘‘adequately fed, healthy and free from stress.’’ That last part of the definition — that play requires that an animal be stress-free and secure — suggests that play is the biological equivalent of a luxury item, the first thing to go when an animal or child is hungry or sick.

This makes evolutionary scientists prick up their ears. How can a behavior be crucial and expendable at the same time? And play is indeed expendable. Studies of vervet monkeys found that playtime decreased to almost zero during periods of drought in East Africa. Squirrel monkeys won’t play when their favorite food sources are unavailable. In humans under stress, what happens with play is more complicated. Even under devastating circumstances, the drive to play is unquenchable. As George Eisen wrote in ‘‘Children and Play in the Holocaust’’: ‘‘Children’s yearning for play naturally burst forth even amidst the horror. . . . An instinctual, an almost atavistic impulse embedded in the human consciousness.’’

Yet play does diminish when children suffer long-term, chronic deprivation, either one at a time in abusive or neglectful homes, or on a massive scale in times of famine, war or forced relocation. And children can still survive, albeit imperfectly, without it.
For humans and animals alike, truly vigorous, wholehearted, spontaneous play is something of a biological frill. This suggests one possible evolutionary function: that in its playfulness, an animal displays its own abundant health and suitability for breeding. But a skeptic might see it differently: if a behavior is this easy to dispense with when times are hard, it might suggest that the behavior is less essential than some advocates claim.

If play is an extravagance, why has it persisted? It must have some adaptive function, or at least a benefit that outweighs its cost, or it would have been winnowed out by the forces of natural selection. One answer can be found through ethology, the study of animal behavior, which takes as one of its goals the explication of how and why a behavior evolved. Nonhuman animals can be more easily studied than humans can: the conditions under which they are raised can be manipulated, their brains altered and probed. And if there is an evolutionary explanation for a human behavior, it could reveal itself in the study of the analogous behavior in animals. Because of nature’s basic parsimony, many aspects of the brain and behavior have been conserved through evolution, meaning that many of the observations that ethologists make in rats, mice and monkeys could apply to humans too.

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Pencils Down: Stop the Homework Insanity


"Parents too are afraid of homework. Is there a way around this?"


As I write this, my 6-year-old son, Paul, is two days away from the start of first grade. He's a bit nervous, worried about whether he'll make friends and like his teacher. Meanwhile, my husband and I are stone-cold petrified.

The source of our fear isn't bullies nor bad lunches nor childhood illnesses. It's homework. We've been hearing about it all summer from friends whose kids have completed first grade.The source of our fear isn't bullies nor bad lunches nor childhood illnesses. It's homework. We've been hearing about it all summer from friends whose kids have completed first grade.

"I'm letting him do all the soccer he wants this summer because there's too much homework for him to do it once school starts," a woman told me by the side of the field last weekend as we watched her 8-year-old celebrate a goal.

A close friend recently confided in me that fights with her husband and daughter over supervising the 7-year-old's homework were driving them apart. And the school year had been in session less than a week.

Last year, from the first day of kindergarten to the last, Paul had homework every day. But his kindergarten was a half-day program, and he did the homework in aftercare, so we never had to do it with him. Thank goodness, too, because once he got home in the evening, he was exhausted and in what Paul's grandfather calls "the indicative mood." One day this summer, while I was supervising Paul on a math workbook the school had recommended during the break, he got so frustrated he reared back his pencil and accidentally struck me in the eyelid. A millimeter down and Mommy's summer nickname would have been "Patch."

First grade is a full-day program, and Alejandro wants to opt out of aftercare and pick Paul up at 3:15.

"That means you have to do the homework with him," I've warned, fearing Alejandro doesn't have the patience to work with Paul on this challenging task. I've already become suspicious about Alejandro's acceptance of the homework reality because he has signed both kids up for numerous fall soccer activities. My boys, I will confide with maternal immodesty, are talented little South American players, and we long to continue feeding their passion. But, I am told, we need to set aside an hour each night so our 6-year-old can do his work sheets.

This situation, as you might have perceived, makes me more than a little angry. I attended some of the highest-rated private schools in California—admittedly, in another era, when a 1970s hippie ethos reigned (and tuition was waaay cheaper)—and wasn't given homework until fourth grade. Ditto for Alejandro, who attended an excellent school in Uruguay.

I know much criticism is reserved for parents who encourage sports at the expense of academics. But my boys, who are 4 and 6, are so energetic they itch for a vigorous game nearly every day; it seems to calm them and allow them to focus later. Both kids can name a dozen countries, recognize their flags, know what language is spoken there, and find them on a map—all due to their love of different teams and players. Why is that memorization—inspired by their own interest—less valuable than the rote memorization required for most homework sheets?

I was bellyaching about my fear of what homework would do to our family dynamic when a friend suggested I speak to my neighbor, a sweet, soft-spoken, stay-at-home mom with a second-grade daughter, who reputedly had some kind of unique solution.
The other day, I tapped on her door. "Maybe this is just gossip, but I heard through the grapevine that you do something about the homework situation," I said.

My neighbor smiled and gestured, "come." She unfolded a piece of paper and showed me her daughter's annual assessment, which indicated stellar performances in all subjects.
"She's never done a lick of homework," my neighbor said. At the beginning of each year, my neighbor sits down with the teacher and principal and explains that her daughter does not have time for homework because she needs to play and do chores. She vows her daughter will pay attention in class and bids the school to alert her if any intervention is required.

"Be firm," my neighbor advised me with an adorable smile that I imagine she uses during those conversations at school.

That night, I sat down with Alejandro and described the approach of the rebel on our street.

"Whoa. That's radical," Alejandro said.

"I know. She's hard-core," I said. It was clear that neither of us would be drumming up the guts to have that kind of a confrontation in a few days when school starts.

But, we decided, we won't live in fear of homework or let it overtake our lives. If Paul is doing well in school and if homework is making it impossible for us to enjoy our home life, each other or some fun soccer games, we are going to act.

Step one would probably be to have Paul do the aftercare program for at least the first hour, so teachers can help him with his work and it doesn't have to come home with him. And if that doesn't do the trick, we will go over to our neighbor's house, get another pep talk, practice our own adorable smiles and become rebels ourselves.

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