The Science of Play

Play, an extraordinary phenomenon that can be witnessed from the animal to the human world. In nature it provides critical survival skills and this is the same for human beings. Good ol’fashioned unstructured play is one of the BEST ways to develop muscular and cardiovascular strength, flexibility, coordination, cognitive development, along with bone density in children. Kids do this naturally so we adults sometimes need to stay out of their way. Tumbling, falling, running, wrestling, dancing all contribute to physical literacy which refers to the basic human movements (running, jumping, throwing) and the ABC’S (agility, balance, coordination, speed). And that’s just the physical stuff, let alone the powerful community-building elements of kids playing.

But play is under attack. In our haste to protect our children, we are impeding kids of valuable physical adaptations and critical psychological coping mechanisms that play provides. We have systematically replaced playgrounds with rubber cushioned surfaces. Where kids used to skin their knees, their bodies now operate un-stressed in the protection of an artificial environment. And mom and dad are heavily involved, co-playing and coaching, not letting children problem solve with self-exploration and trial and error (Marano, 2004). Increased micromanagement of organized sport has in effect robbed children of independent thought. “Go here, line there, shoot here” are all good efficient coaching methods but when was the last time you saw a neighbourhood pick-up game organized by children? Yes, traditional coaching is the best way to refine skills, but young children should not be robbed of leadership skills, mental agility, and social curiosities.

By over protecting children on the playground we lay the foundation for dependence and a more fragile physical body, for it is not how well we succeed, but how well we fail that has the biggest impact on resilience and growth. By learning at an early age independent problem solving, a valuable life lesson is taught and in the process children develop and enhance physical characteristics. The majority of bone growth, for example, occurs early on in life. In fact the much of bone endurance and integrity comes before the age of 12 years. Stressing the bones through falling, crawling, tumbling, and play increases bone diameter and density so that they become stronger and more durable (Klavora, 2008).

Pre-School and Child programs should ensure a safe environment in which a participant can explore and learn about movement. Progressive programs for ages 3 – 10 ensure that participants feel free attempt all kinds of movement challenges that promote independent thinking and problem solving.

So next time it’s play time, watch from afar or challenge children to independent tasks – “How many ways can you get from here to there?” Play is a survival tactic nature has used since the beginning of time. In the long run it’s best to learn from failure and through self-exploration.

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