Brains and play

The trouble with being gone, is the amount of time it takes to dig out and get things back under control again. Between K.'s surgery and my trip, I have this nagging sense that I will never get things back under control. I know I will, but the process to get there is not a lot of fun.

One good thing about being gone is that I got a lot of reading done, including knocking out a chunk of some of those non-fiction books that had been piling up. Since I'm not working my way through a different one, it means you get front row seats as I process the information.

First read some of the things I found interesting. These are from Smart Moves: why learning is not all in your head by Carla Hannaford. Those of you who have been hanging out here for any length of time, might see a recurring theme.

"When we play, dopamine is released which induces elation, excitement, and orchestrates nerve net development and alignment all over the brain. ... We [author and other researchers] are finding that 'play' also helps to stich individuals into the social fabric that is the staging ground for their lives. It assists the vestibular system in growing brilliant, creative, healthy brains through cross-lateral, spiral movements that also increase the levels of dopamine important for neural plasticity and optimal learning. Play provides the touch necessary for nerve growth factor to assist the growth the health of massive inteconnected nerve networks throughout the body, and production of oxytocin which assists learning, focus and a sense of safety. And, play teaches us how to be with each other in a way that fosters belonging and safety at all levels." (pp. 73-74)

When the author uses the idea of play in this passage, she is referring to the broad definition of play... not only imaginative play, but outside play, music, acting, and games as well. This is peek-a-boo, hopscotch, piano practicing, backyard circuses, chess, tag, playing house, as well as so much more. This is what we think of as early childhood, and it is, since it forms the neural foundations for later academic learning and emotional health. But it is also for older children and adults as well.

Did you catch that line about play promoting oxytocin (a neural transmitter, which regulates social interaction) being needed to promote neural plasticity? This seems pretty huge to me. If you want your brain to continue to make connections, to continue to learn things, then you want to promote neural plasticity. Play is what is going to do that. Is it any wonder that the stereotype of a crotchety set-in-their-ways older adult is also one that we would not think of as playing? Play is good for us for our entire lives. Play will quite literally keep our brains young.

The other thing that this confirms to me is in regards to our children who have had a hard start in life, often missing early chances at playing and feeling safe. If we want to do what is best for our children, particularly if they have joined our families at later ages, we will help them to learn to play. It is the rare child coming out of a deprived background who knows how to play. It is a skill that they never had a chance to learn because life was too precarious.

Parents spend so much time worrying about how to get their new child caught up academically, that one of the most important skills is overlooked. It seems counter-intuitive, but I strongly believe that focusing on play... in all of its forms... especially with the new parents, would not only build a strong foundation from which to learn academics, but also to create a sense of safety and attachment which will also help the learning process. Jumping to academics before these foundations have been laid, seems to me to be a bit like putting the cart before the horse.

I know there are children who do succeed in school right away, but so often I hear of students who are struggling. I would suggest to go back and put things in their proper order.. let them learn to play and to do the work of childhood. There is plenty of time for academics, an entire lifetime, in fact. Life and education are not a race. There is not prize for getting there faster, and no one looses out if you take a little longer. But by pushing and missing important life lessons and skills, there is much that can be lost.


Donna said…
Although there is plenty of hard stuff about adopting out of birth order, I think one of the benefits was that my new 6yo had a 2yo sister to teach her how to play. For the first 6 months or so, the 6yo played on a 2-3yo level and had a built in way to play in a way she had missed (with no shame!).
After 4 months she started kindergarten (not 1st grade, even though she was almost 7) in a school with a low emphasis on academics in kindergarten. So at home she was playing with a 3yo and at school with 5yos so she could gradually build those early skills. By the end of kindergarten she had very much caught up with her classmates and was very ready for 1st grade.

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