“Nature’s Spitball” or “What’s the Point of Play?”

A recent issue of the American Journal of Play is devoted to scholarly articles addressing the subject of Free Play as opposed to structured play, organized sports, and the like. One article discusses the consequences of our fearful attitudes toward the world and its dangers to children – essentially the reduction in free play, like the play I engaged in when I was a kid in the steets, backyards, fields, forests, and vacant lots for endless days on end. There are many benefits that may be attributed to such free play.           

The anthropologist Peter Gray examines rule making and rule breaking and the benefits of children playing outside the realm of adult oversight. He considers the reduction in Free Play to be the cause of "the steep rise in the psychopathology of children and adolescents."   

Monkeys-playingGray also examines play habits across various species of mammals and the similarities they bear to human children's play. For example, childcare and nurturing play can be seen in primate as well as human female offspring, while more rough-and-tumble play is common in the male young across species. This rough-and-tumble play is a useful means of learning to regulate one's emotions. Anthropologist Peter Gray examines rule making, rule breaking, and the benefits of playing outside the realm of adult oversight.     

Play has been shown to stimulate genes for nerve growth in the executive portion of the brain. After a 30-minute play session, perhaps as many as 400 genes have been seen to be activated and 'significantly modified'. The author calls it 'nature's spitball' that the non-directed, non-goal-oriented activity we call play enhances the brain development that is needed for later goal-directed activities. Play develops our ability to regulate ourselves and as adults to pursue goals with directed, focused activity.  


Play promotes children's mental health in the following ways: 

a. play helps kids develop interests and competencies 

b. play helps children learn to follow rules, make decisions, regulate their own behavior, and solve problems 

c. play helps a child learn how to make friends and to treat others as equals 

d. Through play a child experiences joy 

What does it all mean?

An interesting insight from Peter Gray, and I paraphrase slightly, is that social play is nature’s way of teaching young humans that they are not special. Even those that are more skilled at games or activities than others must consider the wants and needs of the others as equal to their own or face being excluded from the play altogether. Play is essential. Play is crucial, critical, of paramount importance to the raising up of a child.

Pile-of-toysToys are important tools of play. Toys enable play, toys are the implements around which play is organized. Toys help children experience joy and help them learn how to make and keep friends. Toys are tools by which children learn how to make decisions, regulate their own behaviors, and follow rules. Toys help develop the imagination. They are essential components of a child's happiness and good mental health. By enabling play, toys have been essential in all of our own healthy upbringings and have enabled us to function successfully in the world today as adults.  

In other words, toys matter. 

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