Kim Bushaw, M.S., is an Extension Service Family Science Specialist at North Dakota State University. She has worked as a licensed parent educator for more than 30 years between NDSU Extension and Minnesota’s Early Childhood Family Education programs. Bushaw earned her degrees from NDSU. She has two grown children and three grandchildren. In addition to Bushaw, Rebecca Woods Ph.D., and Sean Brotherson, Ph.D., from NDSU are acknowledged for their generous contributions to this article.
Scene: Adult answers the front door. Neighborhood child smiles and says, “Hi! Can (insert your name here) come out and play?”
This popular scene was played out on front door steps nearly every evening after dinner in the neighborhood where I grew up. I hope the same was true for you, then and now. Why? Humans need to play!
As adults we might call it bowling, gardening, quilting, bridge, woodworking, golf, swimming or a myriad of other activities but it is, in effect, play if it is enjoyable to the person who is participating. Play is something we do because it’s fun or interesting, not something we do because we have to do it. Play also provides a multitude of practical benefits.
Landmark Study: Play is good for you!
In the early 1960’s, about the same time my friends and I were ringing doorbells and asking others to come out and play, a female neuroscientist named Marian Diamond conducted a series of experiments on rats. She discovered that enriched environments, those with opportunities for activity and socialization, strengthened the rats’ brains and made them smarter. In other words, rats who played with rat toys and socialized with other rats had a distinct advantage over rats in non-enriched environments. Other studies soon followed and confirmed that even for humans, enriched environments that incorporate toys or tools in play and that promote interaction with other people build our brains and make us smarter, happier, and yes, healthier, too!
More recently, modern brain imaging technology has allowed researchers to take an inside look at what stimulates various areas of the brain. Through this technology they have discovered that actively moving our bodies’ impacts our brains in positive ways.
Lifelong Learning and Play
The infant throws her arms in the air, kicks her tiny legs, and engages her dad with a screech, a smile, and then a coo. Dad returns the smile, the cooing sounds, and asks in a sing song voice, "Was that little screech a test of your voice, or do you need some help from me?" Dad stops at the crib and plays gently, bringing the baby's limbs back toward her body then watches with a smile as the baby pushes her arms and legs out again. Baby waves both arms in the air and catches a glimpse of her own tiny fist then tracks it with her eyes. Dad is pleased and amazed. As the baby moves, dad reads the baby's cues, and an important relationship of trust starts to form. During this type of play, as the two volley back and forth with sounds, words, and actions, the baby is learning important social skills, such as taking turns in conversation. These activities stimulate the areas of the brain associated with social interaction and speech. She is learning the language- and its subtle nuances- that she will speak at home with her mother and her father. If we were to measure her brain activity, we would see key areas of her brain "light up" as she processes sounds, groups them into words, and begins to recognize their meaning. When she cries, her parents appear to pick her out of the crib. From her parents' response to a cry, baby is learning important "cause and effect" relations. Dad holds her under the arms while the baby bounces to strengthen her muscles. It's impossible not to respond to the joy and delight this activity brings to both. Baby sees dad's response and repeats the activity. She's learning to read dad's cues. Playing peeka-a-boo will reinforce object permanence- that is, her understanding that mom and dad (or other hidden things) are still there even when she can't see them. Soon the baby will crawl behind the couch and peek out to engage dad in the play. These simple ways of moving and playing significantly enhance her cognitive and social skills. Infancy is an important period of brain growth that provides a foundation for more complex abilities later in life. Physical activity during this time of life, like reaching for toys, kicking legs, sitting up, and crawling, goes a long way toward keeping babies healthy and enriching their brain development. But the importance of active play doesn't end in infancy. As we grow, the activities may change, but they are as vital to our neural health, even as adults, as they are when we are babies.
Toddlers love to play with their parents and, as many parents know, use adults as toys, too. Dancing, singing, and naming body parts with “head, shoulders, knees and toes” are all valuable and healthy play activities. Learning about the world with the “itsy bitsy spider”, exploring safe toys with all of their senses, learning about size by climbing into a space that isn’t large enough…these are all examples of ways toddlers enhance their own talents through play. Children who are actively playing are constantly making comparisons and discoveries that increase their cognitive skills. Shape sorters help with hand-eye coordination as well as problem solving. Dumping and filling containers in the bath tub will later become volume and mass experiments in school. Kicking and throwing balls, tumbling in the grass, chasing bubbles, pulling and pushing the sled across the yard teach the toddler about their own power and size in the world.
Preschoolers add friends to their play and learning. Mom and dad might give you the bigger piece of clay or the first turn at the slide, but that kind of selfless social behavior is not likely with another preschooler! A preschool friend is good for learning about sharing, waiting, trading and controlling your fists and teeth when things don’t go your way. Lessons learned on the playground, with close supervision and coaching, help children develop cognitive, social and emotional skills. Dr. Rebecca Woods explains “games like Simon Says, for example, not only exercise cortical areas associated with body movement and coordination, they help develop the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for conscious inhibition of impulses, reasoning, planning, problem-solving, and other important skills that we, as adults, find necessary for successful living.” This set of brain skills that help us think, make choices, and guide our behaviors are known as “executive function skills”, and they begin developing in infancy but continue to grow throughout childhood and into young adulthood.
School-age children are learning the importance of rule following, decision making, paying attention, problem solving, taking another person’s perspective, communicating, making connections and taking on challenges. If playing outdoors in a green space with a few sturdy trees, some rocks or hills, a little water and a couple of age-mates doesn’t spark the imagination and help the brain with the aforementioned concepts, what will? Research on the importance of physical activity in schools suggests that adding more physical activity into the school day by taking time from curricular subjects actually increases academic performance as well as physical and mental health benefits to students.
Adolescence and Adulthood
Playing in adolescence and adulthood can come in the form of recreation (re-creation) of our minds and bodies. Importantly, we learn through all forms of play. Like most 50 somethings, I have had to tackle technology that was not a part of my childhood but is now a major part of my work. Over and again I have gotten this advice when I am handed a new device to learn: “Just play with it.” That is usually the first part of the training. “Play with it and see what it can do.” Furthermore, when we engage in fun, exploratory, challenging, and personally rewarding activities, our brain gets a chemical boost that enhances memory and facilitates learning. Not only does active play help us maintain our health, it keeps our brains sharp.
Older adults still benefit both physically and cognitively from movement and exercises including walking, swimming, yoga, and lifting light weights. Games that engage the brain such as playing cards, board games, puzzles, word games; writing; volunteering; and a host of other enjoyable activities are especially stimulating when done with other people. Even in older adults, physical movement and play can improve all aspects of well-being including social, physical, emotional and cognitive.
Movement, play and brain health have a solid and fundamental connection. Researchers have noted that calling movement activities “play” was more effective in getting people to participate. So, ask yourself - how will you immerse your brain in play today?