Play is the language of childhood. Whether they’re giggling their way through a book, roughhousing with siblings, building an imaginary world, or pretending to be Pooh Bear and Piglet—there’s just something so joyful and inherently good about watching children play. It often takes my breath away.
Maybe it’s because playfulness is one of the most universal aspects of being alive. Primates, dogs, cats, rats, and almost all other mammals (even some birds!) all engage in some type of play while they’re young. Scientists used to believe that the function of play was to develop survival skills like fighting and hunting for food, but more recent studies are uncovering something much more profound: Play is actually crucial for learning and essential to our children’s well-being.
A fact-finder by nature, I find this growing research riveting, and I’ve become determined to do everything I can to prioritize and protect this need for my children.
Watching their faces beam with sheer delight while unencumbered is one of the highlights of my days. What’s more, I am simultaneously able to witness them becoming more independent, developing their own methods of reasoning, sorting through natural consequences, absorbing impressive amounts of information, and deeply connecting to the people in their world...all while following their own path of joy. (subtext: no adult guidance, coercion, or manipulation required!)
What a simple and profound shift it has been for us: instead of pouring into them as if they’re empty cups, we can step back and allow the spark of their imagination to catch fire and light the way.
I must admit, I am unreasonably passionate about this topic because of how much this understanding has impacted our daily life as a family. For us, it has opened the pathway to effective communication, fostered genuine learning, reinforced the feeling that we “get” each other, and, of course, ushered in a whole lotta fun. That’s why I am sharing so many things in this post that I have uncovered over the years—my hope is that it will make you want to swing open the back door and let your littles go wild!
The Work of the Child
Maria Montessori famously said that play is the work of the child. In other words, play is the goal. The rest just follows suit.
We can see this theory in practice in countries like Finland, Holland, and Poland where they don’t try to actively teach young children (not even the alphabet!), but instead give them the opportunity to learn and develop on their own through play. In fact, in Finland and Poland, school does not even begin until age 7.
This might make you think that these children are at risk of academic delay—but it turns out this is not at all the case. Children in these countries repeatedly outperform their same age groups in the UK and U.S. in math, science, and reading, and have higher high school and college graduation rates.
Furthermore, a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that children who start school later are less likely to be inattentive or hyperactive in class. In fact, researchers discovered that delaying kindergarten by just one year reduced inattention and hyperactivity by 73 percent at age 11 (age 11!) and it practically eliminated the probability that an average 11-year-old would have an abnormal inattentive-hyperactive behavioral measure rating.1 Researchers theorize that this could be due in part to the additional playtime kids have access to when they start school at a later age.
I suddenly got it: play is a serious business.
Play gives children the space to develop according to their own individual path and the foundation and skills they need to learn and interact throughout their lives. There’s a reason it’s the only thing they want to do. Play is not just productive, it’s the most direct route to an emotionally, socially, and mentally intelligent child.
This epiphany revolutionized my approach to parenting. And that revelation led me to the next groundbreaking piece of the puzzle: the importance of unstructured play.
So What’s Unstructured Play Anyway?
It’s simple. Unstructured play is completely open-ended and free. Yes, free—it allows your child to lead the way and explore their world with their own senses and inner guidance system. In this type of play, there are no preset rules, screens, classes, or coaching. No need to make up a game or teach a new song or set restrictive guidelines.
Unstructured play allows children (and even adults) the space to be spontaneous, creative, and adaptable.
In practice, unstructured play might involve building a road out of sticks, making up dances, splashing around in rain puddles, picking flowers, pretending to be puppies and kittens, or sliding down a snowy hill in a tube. Or your kids might decide to build a castle out of old cardboard boxes and decorate it with paints and little bits of odds and ends. Whatever the particulars, the kids themselves decide how their games will work and unfold.
Unstructured Play and the Brain
Studies involving both animals and human children suggest that time spent in unstructured play during childhood confers two major types of advantages on the human brain:
Stronger neural connections
Free play involves creativity, spontaneity, and trying out new strategies in a fun, non-threatening way. This activates and strengthens neural connections in the executive functioning areas of the brain—the regions responsible for regulating emotions, making plans, and problem solving—in a way that organized classrooms and activities can’t duplicate.
The result is that unstructured play seems to foster brains that are more “plastic.” In other words, they’re able to adapt and rewire in response to new circumstances.2,3
Beneficial changes in brain structure
Unstructured play actually changes the structure of the brain itself, in a very good way. For starters, animal research has discovered a correlation between the time primates spent playing and how much their brains grew after birth.4 And free play positively influences the physical volume of a number of brain structures in primates and other animals—regions including the cerebellum, hypothalamus, neocortex, amygdala, and striatum.5,6,7,8 Overall, more time spent in unstructured play is associated with a larger cortico-cerebellar system, an area that plays a vital role in learning and forming mental models.9
All that brain benefit comes with some substantial real world perks: A recent study found that the more time children spent in unstructured activities, the better their self-directed executive functioning.10 Free play even produced lasting brain changes in rats activated at the genetic level—switching on genes associated with social interactions and thinking in as little as a half hour of play.11,12 And perhaps most importantly, play is proven to help enrich brain areas that involve social interaction. Being socially adept helps kids succeed in every area of life.
So when you let your kids run free and wild, they’re actually building their amazing brains. That means not only will they thank you for the fun now—they’ll have lots to thank you for later.
Encouraging Unstructured Play
Kids love to play naturally, so all you really have to do to foster play is to stay in tune with your child and make sure their day contains lots of unscheduled time to play freely. I’ve found that toys aren’t even a necessary component. It seems the less toys we have around and the less specific our toys are, the more creative my children become—and they are then exhilarated by their own creativity.
Another thing I’ve learned is that there is no better way to connect our children than to meet them in their world by joining them in their play. One of my all-time favorite paradigm-shifting books is Playful Parenting by Lawrence J. Cohen. By emphasizing the importance and power of play, this valuable resource can upgrade your relationship with your children and help everyone have more fun along the way.
For all we parents do for our kids, it seems one of the biggest gifts we can give them is to just let them play, and that’s a beautiful thing. So when you watch your children dancing and running about, know that they’re busy wiring their brains for a lifetime of love, friendship, creativity, learning, and success.
Who knew plain old fun could be so good for you?
- Dee. T. (2015). The Gift of Time? School Starting Age and Mental Health [PDF file]. Retrieved from https://www.nber.org/papers/w21610.pdf
- Pellis, S. M., Himmler, B. T., Himmler, S. M., & Pellis, V. C. (2018). Rough-and-Tumble Play and the Development of the Social Brain. The Neurobiology of Brain and Behavioral Development, 315-337. doi:10.1016/b978-0-12-804036-2.00012-1
- Pellis, S. M., Pellis, V. C., & Bell, H. C. (2010). the Function of Play in the Development of the social Brain. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1069225.pdf
- Montgomery, S. H. (2014). The relationship between play, brain growth and behavioural flexibility in primates. Animal Behaviour, 90, 281-286.
- Lewis, K. P. (2000). A Comparative Study of Primate Play Behaviour: Implications for the Study of Cognition. Folia Primatologica, 71(6), 417-421. doi:10.1159/000052740
- Graham, K. L. (2010). Coevolutionary relationship between striatum size and social play in nonhuman primates. American Journal of Primatology, 73(4), 314-322. doi:10.1002/ajp.20898
- Lewis, K. P., & Barton, R. A. (2006). Amygdala size and hypothalamus size predict social play frequency in nonhuman primates: A comparative analysis using independent contrasts. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 120(1), 31-37. doi:10.1037/0735-7036.120.1.31
- Lewis, K. P., & Barton, R. A. (2004). Playing for keeps. Human Nature, 15(1), 5-21. doi:10.1007/s12110-004-1001-0
- Kerney, M., Smaers, J. B., Schoenemann, P. T., & Dunn, J. C. (2017). The coevolution of play and the cortico-cerebellar system in primates. Primates, 58(4), 485-491. doi:10.1007/s10329-017-0615-x
- Barker, J. E., Semenov, A. D., Michaelson, L., Provan, L. S., Snyder, H. R., & Munakata, Y. (2014). Less-structured time in children's daily lives predicts self-directed executive functioning. Frontiers in Psychology, 5. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00593
- Burgdorf, J., Panksepp, J., & Moskal, J. R. (2011). Frequency-modulated 50kHz ultrasonic vocalizations: a tool for uncovering the molecular substrates of positive affect. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 35(9), 1831-1836. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2010.11.011
- Moskal, J. R., Burgdorf, J., Kroes, R. A., Brudzynski, S. M., & Panksepp, J. (2011). A novel NMDA receptor glycine-site partial agonist, GLYX-13, has therapeutic potential for the treatment of autism. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 35(9), 1982-1988. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2011.06.006