As families start to wind down summer activities and gear up for the return to school, new research may help parents realize that recess can be as important to a child’s brain development as time in the classroom.
Studies discussed in the book “The Development of Social Engagement: Neurobiological Perspectives,” show that the experience of play alters neurons in a certain part of the brain for a benefit that doesn’t otherwise occur.
Changes in the prefrontal cortex during childhood, said researcher Sergio Pellis in an interview on NPR, help wire the brain's executive control center, which is critical in regulating emotions, making plans and solving problems. So play, Pellis said, prepares a young brain for life, love and even school.
But not just any kind of play. It has to be the kind that kids seem to get less of these days — free-form, uncoached, spontaneous play. No coaches, no umpires, no rules.
"Whether it's rough-and-tumble play or two kids deciding to build a sand castle together, the kids themselves have to negotiate, well, what are we going to do in this game? What are the rules we are going to follow?" Pellis said in the interview. Because these playful interactions actually are fairly complicated social relationships, the brain builds new circuits to navigate them.
A couple of years ago, we discussed another aspect of spontaneous play that involves risk-taking; see “Risky Play on Playgrounds Isn’t Always Wrong.”
These are lessons scientists have learned from animals.
Species including cats, dogs, most mammals and some birds engage in social play. Observers used to think that rough-and-tumble animal play might be how they develop survival skills. But studies have suggested otherwise. Even if adult cats were deprived of play as kittens, for example, they’re still good at killing a mouse.
So researchers began to see the value of play for different reasons. One, Jack Panksepp, studied rats, who horse around a lot, and emit a sound he dubbed "rat laughter." His studies showed that about 1 in 3 of the genes they looked at were significantly changed after a half-hour of play.
Of course, a rat brain isn’t a human brain, but there’s also a reason rats are common scientific test subjects. As Pellis noted, play behavior is similar across species. Rats, monkeys and children all seem to follow similar rules: Participants take turns, play fair and don’t inflict pain.
So play helps people and animals socialize.
In people, Pellis said, the skills associated with play can boost academic performance. One study showed that the best predictor of academic performance in eighth grade was a child's social skills in third grade.
As Pellis observed, "[C]ountries where they actually have more recess tend to have higher academic performance than countries where recess is less."
It’s good exercise and good discipline for kids to participate in organized sports. But it’s not the only form of physical activity that’s good for them. And, possibly, not even the most important.