How Children Play and Succeed

Play Shapes Children’s Development

By Josan Wright Callender

Years ago, my friends and I ran around the neighborhood playing cops and robbers, hide-and-seek, and treasure hunt. We had no idea that these simple (pre PC) games were a key component to our later success in our careers. Many of these same friends now work as professionals; some act as CEOs of their own companies.

Social scientists have established that playing games contributes to the building of social skills. My research in the field has persuaded me that much of our self-esteem, problem-solving skills and sense of independence have originated from the fun and humble origins of childhood play.

As kids, we didn’t know that while taking turns at hide-and-seek, we were learning how to negotiate the delicate balance of building, maintaining (and not jeopardizing!), friendships. Our willingness to be a leader and a follower, our sense of fairness, our sense of inclusivity, and our sense of wholesome competitiveness — all of these were shaping our characters and shaping us into the people we are today.

As I stated above, the science supports the role of play in development. For starters, one researcher[1] working with laboratory rodents and primates found that “the experience of play changes the connections of the neurons” in the prefrontal cortex. Accordingly, play contributes to the brain’s development.

More specifically, researchers in one pivotal study[2] have shown that while we were playing cops and robbers, we were actually in the process of developing culturally appropriate behavior; learning how to “manage emotions, relate to adults, relate to peers and feel good about ourselves.” They found that these early experiences had an affect on the development of our intelligence, emotional health, and moral development. These early play activities also had an impact on how we felt about ourselves. Children’s self-esteem, they stated, was as “important as how they [thought], particularly with regard to school readiness.”

Social skills are the foundation of school readiness. According to another study,[3] “Prosocialness (cooperating, helping, sharing, and consoling) has a strong positive impact on later academic achievement and social preferences.” As one anthropologist has stated,[4] play that allows a child to “make-pretend” presents an opportunity for “counterfactual reasoning, the ability to make inferences about events that have not actually occurred.” It appears that this kind of play, which has a set of rules, encourages children to think of a number of “what if” scenarios — which helps them learn to plan.

When one takes these research findings and observations into consideration, it becomes clear that play is crucial to children’s growth. Personally, I was gratified to know that we weren’t just “passing the time,” when we played outside — we were conducting an invaluable social experiment that is still paying enormous dividends!

Not surprisingly, when I returned to teaching after pursuing a media-driven career in filmmaking (some self-imposed play time!), I received sage advice from a master teacher. This person stated that while my teaching goals should include learning about the pedagogy, concept-driven, standard-based academic program that our universities have taught; she stated, “Whatever you do, make it fun.”

[1] Pellis, Sergio, and Vivien Pellis. 2009. The Playful Brain: Venturing to the Limits of Neuroscience. London: Oneworld Publications.

[2] Committee on Integrating Science of Early Childhood Development et al. , From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Integrating Science of Early Development. 2000. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

[3] Caprara, G. et al., 2000, “Prosocial Foundations of Children’s Academic Achievement,” Psychological Science 11 (4): 302–06.

[4] Dewar, Gwen, Ph.D. 2008. “The Cognitive Benefits of Play: Effects on the Learning Brain,”

Exported from Medium on February 1, 2016.

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