Most parents and educators don’t know the real importance of playtime when it comes to a child’s development and the different results that can come from each style and way of playing. Gopnik (2016) says “Play helps children to interact, learn how things work and think about possibilities and understand other people’s mind.”
The act of play is founded in many different animal species and the biologists have been trying to define it for years. Not being able to really find an objective definition, they found a group of characteristics that, being present, classify the behavior as playing.
According to those, play is not work, it’s fun and voluntary. Play has a special structure, a pattern of repetition and variation (how many of us have read the same story about a hundred times, to our child who still keeps asking for it?). And another important characteristic is that playing “depends on safety and security” (Gopnik, 2016). Children that don’t have their basic needs fulfilled or are not safe, don’t play and that can be observed either in human children or animal cubs.
The impact of playing
Playing is a common behavior amongst the young animals of every kind, but how did this interfere with their evolution? The answer is easy: the more they play, the more plastic their brains become.
“For neuroscience, a plastic brain is a brain that changes more easily” (Gopnik, 2016) which will allow us to make more and more efficient connections after an experience and learn with them and the more you play, more easily you adapt to new situations and circumstances.
In the 60’s, a group of scientists conducted some experiments on rats. One group of rats had a sterile environment and the other one had a rich environment, filled with all sorts of toys. The conclusions were very obvious: the second group’s “brains grew bigger (…), with more connections and larger frontal areas.”
Animals with a longer childhood tend to play more, which matters a great deal in leading them to become more resourceful, intelligent and adapt better to different circumstances. If that playing happens in a safe, protected environment with a bigger investment from their parents, it’s even better.
Play is a possibility of experimentation, and with it, children learn some of the tools they’ll need as adults, helping with their learning and developing their skills. And best of all… it’s fun!
Pretending is a very human way of playing and also a very old one. “Archaeologists have recovered four-thousand-year-old dolls and miniature kitchen utensils in Bronze Age children’s quarters.” (Gopnik, 2016)
This “is central to our powerful human learning abilities” (Gopnik, 2016) because playing, especially playing pretend, is closely related to hypothetical or counterfactual thinking, which means, the ability of imagining an alternative way for what things should be (from as simply imagining different uses for a simple tool, up to envisioning a different political organization in your own country).
Just like science, playing teaches our children to call into question what they see, imagining hypotheses, testing, and finding their own conclusions. This will have a great impact on their adult lives and has been incredibly fundamental to our evolution as a species.
Playing pretend gives children the ability to think about possibilities, and helps them understand what other people think, want or believe. “Children who pretend more have a distinct advantage in understanding other people” (Gopnik, 2016)
GOPNIK, Alison (2016). The Gardener and the Carpenter. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.