Monday, May 5, 2014

Play is the Secret Ingredient for Creativity, Confidence and Neural Development

Everyone wants their children to grow up into creative and confident adults, able to solve problems and resolve conflicts. Everyone wants their child’s brain to develop to the fullest potential. I’m going to tell you a secret, though it is a secret that I wish everyone knew. President Obama, are you listening? The way to develop creativity and neural capacity is to give young children ample time for unstructured free, creative play. In spite of worldwide trends in education, it is NOT through regimented testing-oriented academic programs for young children where they are instructed in how to spell and read and more - programs where there is no time for recess or inside play, no time for naps and even no time for rehearsed play performances. 

There are many reasons why plentiful time for play is essential in a child’s development. In the youngest children, play is how they grasp the world. Play gives the opportunity to explore the physical world around them and discover the processes and laws of nature. Through creative, unstructured, children can integrate into existence in the physical world. Play activities have an explorative, experimenting element that allows the child to make sense of the world around them.

A most important evolutionary function of play is 
finding out what is fun and fair or not-fair on the 
field of life. - Jaak Panksepp

Play is also the way to learn about the social world through its improvisational aspects. Young children learn by imitating, and in their play they try out various behaviors they have observed. They learn how to interact with other human beings, and they learn what activities they like and what they don’t like. They also learn what their playmates like and don’t like. This is an essential step toward developing social awareness and is a basis for the eventual possibility of compassion and empathy. Through creative, unstructured, children can integrate into existence in the social world.

 If play is strongly regulated and children are made 
to direct their play toward a particular goal, 
then it is no longer play. The essence of play is 
that it is free. - Rudolf Steiner

In the play activity of the young child there is total engagement of all aspects of the child; body, feelings, thinking and doing. Adults have to pretend to be able to engage in play. The adult intellect is engaged in the pretending. The young child completely transforms into something else when truly engaged in play. Play is the ultimate learning opportunity because it provides the essentials for the archetypal learning situation. Play has the intensity of total engagement. It has personal value and relevance for the child since they have created it. It has duration - it lasts for a notable length of time. It has novelty - it is newly created by the child. And play involves all the senses, and movement, and speech. This multi-modality activity involves many parts of the brain. These five elements are the basis for all successful learning situations.

An additional element that has recently been getting a lot of attention is risk. Play that the child perceives as risky and challenging is important in developing self-confidence and a feeling of self-esteem. Joan Almon of the Alliance for Childhood has just finished a book on the subject called "Adventure: The Value of Risk in Children's Play." Read the introduction.

Play gives children a chance to practice what they 
are learning...They have to play with what they know 
to be true in order to find out more, and then they can 
use what they learn in new forms of play.  
Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood

Dr. Paul MacLean of the U.S. National Institutes of Health ties the process of imaginative development to play. For MacLean, play is the pathway to creativity and high level reasoning. Play helps develop the emotional limbic brain and the frontal lobe of the neocortex which allow for the ultimate expression of human creativity and development.

When you think of play and its effects, consider your new 
equation: PLAY = LEARNING. Research has shown that 
the more advanced children's pretend play, the better they 
do on divergent problem solving tasks. 
Robert Bradley of the University of Arkansas

Much of the brain is involved in play and it also seems to activate higher cognitive processes. "There's enormous cognitive involvement in play," says Marc Bekoff from the University of Colorado. He points out that play often involves complex assessments of playmates, ideas of reciprocity and the use of specialized signals and rules. He believes that play creates a brain that has greater behavioral flexibility and improved potential for learning later in life. "It's about more connectedness throughout the brain.”

This idea is backed up by the work of neuropsychologist Stephen Siviy of Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. Siviy studied how bouts of play affect the brain's levels of a protein called c-FOS, a substance associated with the stimulation and growth of nerve cells. He was surprised by the extent of the activation. "Play just lights everything up," he says. He speculates that by allowing connections between brain areas that might not normally be connected, play may be enhancing creativity.

Now the secret is out. 
Please tell everyone that play is the way!

And here are seven ways to foster creativity, imagination and neural development in our young children, and in early childhood programs:
  1. Allow time for free, unstructured play – without intervention and interruption. (The adult eyes are open, mouth is closed a la Helle Heckmann)
  2. Provide suitable play areas/environment where they can explore and get messy.
  3. Provide suitable and simple toys that allow the child to ‘complete’ with their own imagination. 
  4. Contact with world of nature and the elements. Let them get messy.
  5. Let the children see you, the adult, doing necessary work around the house thereby providing examples for their play of real human work activity.
  6. Provide artistic activities and supplies that allow the children to freely express what is within them. Let them get messy.
  7. Provide nourishing images from stories you tell and songs you sing with the children.

P.S. Please share this with your friends and let me know what you think. Comments are welcome!


  1. YESS! WOW Wonderful insights! I was partially raised by my grandmother who didnt much like messes and sometimes I can see how this carries in to my mothering now...I shall allow more freedom to play and make messes....THis is the best learning.!!!! Eyes Open. Mouth CLosed!

  2. I do wish Obama would read this.