“Play is the highest expression of human development in childhood for it alone is the free expression of what is in a child’s soul”~Froebel
Founder of Kindergarten
We are living in an unprecedented time of academic over achievement. Children as young as 5 years old have extracurricular activity schedules that will put most college kids to shame! With activities ranging from swim lessons to violin classes, parents find themselves spending most of their time shuttling kids around town and little to no time left for meaningful interactions.
To make matters worse, we have been brainwashed by the media and child advertising companies to believe that if we don’t buy the latest ‘Baby Einstein’ classical music mobile for our newborn, they will fall farther behind their peers.
This article will provide scientific evidence to well-meaning parents and show you why children should play more and study less during the early years of child brain development (ages 0-8). We will also share with you some valuable tips for a balance life for you and your child.
After years of studying the brain as a neuroscientist and raising a child of my own, I firmly believe that we should let children be children and play! Rushing childhood in pursuit of academic success is detrimental to the developing brain. Here is why: children learn best by actively engaging with their surroundings rather than through explicit instructions, flash cards and passive memorization.
Let’s dive right in and examine play as a powerful tool to supercharge the child’s brain. No need for fancy toys and expensive learning materials. Here I will show you how the child’s brain is wired to learn and what you can do today to bring more play into your child’s life!
How Does Play Prime the Brain for Academic Success?
Our children are like little scientists: they make predictions about their environment and test them in the real world. This is similar to the scientific method scientists use in the lab!
Free play prepares the young brain for life’s challenges and responsibilities. In fact, experts agree that playground time is more important than classroom time!
It is during play without structured rules and direct adult supervision that children develop the essential skills that will serve them well into adulthood.
The brain’s neurochemistry changes during play in the brain reward centers, improving memory, attention, creativity, mental flexibility and motivation.
The 1o Ways Free Play Builds a Better Brain
Born with the spirit of exploration, children test everything in their world: What will the dog do if I grab his tail? How will mom react when I dump out all of my toys and make a mess? Children are natural scientists, learning the secrets of the universe by making predictions and experimenting with the outcomes. They test the complex principles of physics when they feel gravity pulling their sled downhill. They marvel at the beauty of nature, as a row of ants work diligently gathering food in preparation for winter. It is those interactions with the real world that set the foundation for all future learning.
Children are very creative! We marvel at their wild imagination capable of transforming a large box into a rocket ship and building a fancy castle from wooden blocks. By imagining real world scenarios and acting them out, children get to practice many skills while being buffered from real life consequences. Unstructured play fires up the brain’s dopamine reward system and memory circuits. The long-term benefits of creativity extend to all facets of life, and include traits like innovative thinking and problem solving. Find out how to increase creativity in your child here.
Loving relationships build mentally healthy brains and help counteract life’s stresses. Children are not born with a pre-established social brain, so repeated social interactions are important in developing emotions like empathy and compassion. Serve and return interactions, the back and forth interactions between a child and a caregiver (just like in the game of tennis), help build the brain’s social networks. When integrated into a rich social environment, as in Kindergarten, children have a chance to hone in important social life skills. Since social connections guarantee our survival as a human species, multiple brain regions are devoted to socializing the growing brain throughout life.
4. Emotional regulation
Little children have limited control over their emotional states due to an underdeveloped cortex. The cortex is the brain’s executive function center responsible for thinking, planning and inhibition control, among other key functions. Playing house where one child is mom and the other is dad models real life scenarios and allows children to work through the “big emotions” of family life. These opportunities of reenactment allow the child to make sense of their world while gaining self-control, awareness and mood regulation.
5. Physical Fitness
Get the blood flowing and endorphins released through play. Our bodies are built to move! Physical activity is important in the development of gross motor (large muscle movements like crawling and running) and fine motor skills (smaller muscle movements like grasping and drawing). Movement is controlled by the frontal lobe of the brain and is “fine-tuned” in the cerebellum at the base of the brain. Aerobic exercise greatly improves the hippocampus, a structure devoted to learning and stress regulation. Exercise also improves language development brain centers. Find out more information about how movement supercharges the child’s brain.
6. Problem solving
“Thinking outside of the box” is one of the most desirable qualities in the workplace. Who knew that the playground can be so educational? Practicing important life success skills including negotiation, cooperation and kindness can offer life-long benefits to the developing brain. Science confirms the importance of play through play deprivation studies that clearly demonstrate the negative effects on brain development and problem-solving skills.
7. Enhanced cognition
Just like a sophisticated computer, the child’s brain is a master at gathering and integrating new information from the outside world. Neuroscientists have discovered that the prefrontal cortex at the front of the brain is stimulated by play, which induces new brain cell growth and increases cellular connectivity, creating a smarter brain in the process. By actively engaging with the surroundings in a play group, the executive center (prefrontal cortex) gets plenty of practice in planning, focusing attention and achieving impulse control. Discover more tips on how to shape your child’s brain for success.
8. Practices Mathematics
Math is all around us! Nature designed a hexagon shape for a bee hive, concentric circles on a tree bark and symmetrical features on a beautiful human face. You child is doing math every day, whether we realize it or not. Each time you debate how to divide the birthday cake so that everyone gets a taste you think in fractions. When you ask your child to place 5 apples in the shopping cart while out shopping you practice counting. Many of today’s popular board games also reinforce numbers and counting principles. Useful concepts of big vs. small and heavy vs. light during the early years pave the way for school readiness in arithmetic.
9. Improves Literacy
The ability to read and write (literacy) is a process that begins from the first days of life. Scientific studies have shown that children often practice these skills unknowingly during play. This involves learning how to listen and communicate effectively. Symbolic play, which is the process of transforming an object or oneself to create an imaginary scenario, helps children learn how to write. When children pretend play together (sociodramatic play) they learn from one another language structure and flow.
10. Builds confidence
A child’s self image is formed during the early years of life. Whether it is through independent play or in a group setting, children’s confidence increases as they overcome obstacles and become contributing members of a group. They learn to navigate challenging situations on and off the playground, improving their sense of self. Leading friends on the playground in a new game provides an added boost of self-esteem. Confident kids grow into confident adults and achieve more in life!
Creating the Perfect Balance between Work and Play
Now more than ever, living in the 21st Century has become a balancing act. In borrowing a concept known as Tabata (integrated work and rest periods to get in top athletic shape) from the sports world, we can design a new daily routine. In creating your own child’s “Play Tabata” strategy, play for 40 minutes, have a 20 minute learning session. The learning period can take on many different forms: creative time for an arts and crafts project, reading time or playing music together, which is always followed by a longer play period.
Natural environments are proven to be best for child development. What you do naturally everyday like talking to your child, engaging emotionally, explaining the world to them and answering their many questions offers plenty of stimulation and teachable moments.
Adapt a focused and simplified multi-sensory approach with young children. Integrating several of the key elements like movement, imagination and fun (i.e. making your child laugh during lessons) guarantees that the learning process will be smooth and enjoyable.
To learn effectively you will want to train the attention of a young child in a playful way. For example: with reading, we have movable wooden Montessori letters that we make into funny sentences and even gibberish! Why would I want to read a 20 letter word that a child made up? Because it’s hilarious and teaches them letter sounds while we play! The child creatively arranges the letters in weird combinations and we have a blast! The end result is learning phonics (letter sounds) which are the basis of reading ability down the road.
In the words of Dr. Maria Montessori, “play is the work of the child.” If playing is learning then we can use this powerful tool to helps children navigate life’s challenges and build important life skills. Now you understand the 10 scientifically proven ways to create better brains, including social-emotional, cognitive, language, and self-regulation traits which help develop executive function and a prosocial brain.
By providing children with plenty of play breaks throughout the day and by creating fun lesson plans you will nurture a life-long love for learning. Let’s help our children reach their fullest developmental potential.
What is your way of creating play opportunities in your child’s life? Please share with us your creative ideas.
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Wishing you all the best on your journey!
MAKE THE CHANGE TODAY, LET YOUR CHILDREN PLAY!
Einstein Never Used Flashcards
The Cognitive Benefits of Play: Effects on the Learning Brain
Rough-and-Tumble Play and the Development of the Social Brain
The role of the medial prefrontal cortex in regulating interanimal coordination of movements
Dr. Liraz is a neuroscientist mom who loves writing about the inner workings of child brain. She brings you innovative, science-based child development brain tricks to help you and your child thrive!
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