How a Summer of Play is Essential for Children’s Mental Wellbeing
Jo Stockdale, founder of Well Within Reach, discusses the importance of nurturing play in children’s learning readiness.
“We used to think that schools built brains. Now we know it is play that builds the brains that schools can then use.” Dr Gordon Neufeld.
Intro; A Play On Words
When I think of my own childhood play, I remember skipping ropes and roller skates and summer holidays that seemed to go on and on. They were always spent outside. Children made their own entertainment and adults were never around.
Many of today’s kids will describe screen-based activities instead when asked about their play. This doesn’t reflect that children are changing though. What’s changing is the diet of play that we feed them.
When we think of authentic, meaningful play, we tend to think of very young children first. But the truth is, while it certainly changes, our playfulness never goes away. Adolescents might be mortified to think of themselves as playing… All the while, gaming and play stations-in which they are the ‘players’-play a huge part in many of their lives.
Why; when most of us play music, play a sport, watch a play, play games, role-play or play an instrument; do we not think of ourselves as playing? Neuroscience is now teaching us that play is a deeply profound part of the human experience, from birth. Play is not just the work of early childhood or something we switch off from by a certain age. And nor should we.
While it’s true that our play needs change as we develop and grow up, the language of play throughout our lives reflects our need for play throughout our whole lives. There is no such thing as ‘too old to play’, and the innate desire to play that we observe in small children can teach us a lot, especially if we can play along with them…
Play is something we grow into, not out of…
We can learn the most important lessons about play though, not from our children, but from other species entirely. Kittens in particular can be very cute… They make good social media videos for a reason. They are masters of play. But they do not merely play for its own sake… The kittens who hide behind doors or jump on dogs or wrestle with one another are actually tuning their hunting skills. As fun as it is; for them to do and for us to watch; this is also the stuff of survival. Because if you grow up, and you can’t feed yourself, you’ll die.
And this is the universal truth about play, across every mammalian species on earth, humans included. We are hard-wired to play. That is, when we are born, neural connections deep in our brain are ready to play, and that wiring will stay in place, for life. While not reflected in current educational policy, this knowledge is not particularly emerging.
Estonian neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp spent more than 40 years researching the field of study that became known as ‘Affective Neuroscience’; broadly, the study of animal emotion.
Through that, he discovered 7 ‘primitive emotional systems’, including the PLAY system (which are all always capitalised in these terms to differentiate from the verb). The presence of these systems - in the primitive brain - can only mean one thing; play is designed to support our survival. It is the work of evolution which has been helping other species survive, long before the evolution of humans. This primitive brain is the foundation of everything we learn. All of our learning is built on top of and around this primitive brain.
We all know that in the early years that play is accepted as a primary learning activity, but at an ever-younger age we have seen play progressively chiselled from children’s lives to make way for ‘learning’. In the hopeful emergence from Covid and the catch-up agenda left in its wake, longer school days and shorter school holidays have been bandied around. Many schools are choosing to shorten playtime.
All of these approaches are back to front. They go completely against the neurodevelopmental process of learning. It’s time we stopped trying to direct and micromanage how children grow up, and recognise that their young brains are equipped to do that, all by themselves. They are not born with 86 billion brain cells in their heads for no reason…
Do We Learn to Play Or Play To Learn?
Our 86 billion brain cells mean that every one of us carries the most powerful computer on earth between our ears. From within an hour of birth, our littlest brains are firing and wiring, ready to connect and starting to make sense of their world. Play is waiting in the wings, and it starts with the earliest bonds of adult-child connection.
Recognised as one of the ‘7 Types of Play’ by the Institute for Play (USA), ‘Attunement Play’ is the basis for healthy and secure attachment. We may not recognise ourselves as ‘playing’, but as adults, most of us are instinctively playful with babies and very small children. We exaggerate our facial expressions and vocal tones; we bounce and sing, and make silly noises. The smiles and eye contact that convey the expressions of love and devotion develop into a bidirectional exchange. These kinds of interactions have profound and life-long impacts; little brains learn to experience intense emotion, helping them to tolerate and manage them later in life. And they learn to love.
Games like peek-a-boo start to develop ‘object permanence’; the understanding that things that cannot be seen still exist, which strengthens the basis for secure attachment patterns and behaviours. Object Play enhances this further as children learn to explore their relationship between themselves and the world, the seen and the unseen, and cause-and-effect.
Social Play helps children to learn the skills of acceptance and brings a sense of belonging; the basis for stable, productive friendships; and relationships throughout life. These are the neurological essentials of mental wellbeing. Because the absence of acceptance means rejection. At a deeply primitive level, rejection is a vulnerable and unsafe way to exist. It can subconsciously arouse the brains’ ‘fight-flight’ response, leading to a state of anxiety, fear and hypervigilance. Not conducive to wellbeing, not conducive to learning, not conducive to healthy development, full stop.
The softness of playtimes is not a break from the meaningful stuff. More than ever before, in the post Covid world, this is what our children need more of, not less of! This is how children fathom the norms of ‘acceptable’ behaviour, work out how to conduct themselves, what other people need from them, how to communicate and get their needs met.
The blueprint for relationships, for the whole of their life, can be set in infancy, shaped by children’s earliest experiences of being accepted and acceptable, valued and valuable, loved and loveable.
We all know that stress is bad for us, but few realise how bad it is for our brains. Children’s brains -even though they may not have the cognition to decode the source of their stress and how it feels – are not immune from this. As an emotion moves from the comfortable to the tolerable to the uncomfortable to the stressful, hormones; AKA ‘neurotransmitters’; such as adrenaline and cortisol rise. The biological purpose of these emotions helps us deal with the daily stressors of life but they are acidic. They are not intended to linger in the brain and body.
Our children have lived with enduring, extended stress already, and now face increasing stressors in the post-pandemic world, with both parents and schools concerned about lost learning and ‘catch-up’. And what does that do to their brains? Nothing good…
Even low-level anxiety will slow down neural connectivity sufficiently to inhibit learning. Enduring chronic stressors can cause such elevated cortisol levels that immunity is compromised and pockets of brain tissue burn. It works completely against the evolution of child development to stress children into learning. On the contrary, it does the complete opposite.
How did we come to the belief that learning competes with play, that children can only do one or the other? What’s the basis of this constricted education system that lacks so much faith in children’s ability to learn by themselves, despite the 86 billion brain cells that Mother Nature gave them all?
When children play, they are doing their most important work, not taking time away from the most important work. Play is a marvel for learning-readiness in fact, because it mitigates the impacts of stressor hormones with a healthy dose of dopamine. This feel-good hormone comes with fun, laughter, movement, creativity, using their bodies, socialising. What’s more it helps to sluice toxic stressor hormones from the system which slow learning down.
What’s even more, dopamine speeds up neural connectivity! Who knew that the very activities that optimise learning-readiness are the ones that are diminishing? At best we see the fun, creative ‘golden’ times at the end of the day. We get little brains all fired up… then send them home.
1 in 6 children in the UK now has a diagnosable mental health condition. Self-injury is increasingly being reported in early years settings. While no one single factor accounts for these troubling statistics, there is much we can -and must - do to stop exacerbating the devastation of young minds.
Now is a pivotal time and a golden opportunity to rethink what we know about how children learn and develop, to stop working against little brains; as we have done for years; and start working with them.
Conclusion; Play Is For Life
The last 15 months have taught us a great deal about change. We’ve learned to accept it, adapt to it, live with it and expect it. But through all of this, change has been doing the driving, while we have been fairly powerless passengers. We all know that changes for children are much needed, and long overdue, and it is up to us to make those changes happen, rather than just tolerating change, as it happens to us.
More play; not just at an ethical and moral level, but at a neurological and biological level; is what every child deserves and needs. Let’s start with a summer of play and start as we mean to go on; with an autumn, winter and spring of play. Every year, for every child.
Observe children’s innate desire to play. They are very good at showing us what they need, if we are wise enough to watch and listen. They are always led by their deepest urges to be curious, inquisitive, and enquiring… until we teach them to stop asking questions and answer ours instead.
Let’s give our children the space to be children; not because there’s ‘plenty of time to grow up later’, but because this is how they grow up!
Can we trust them in their play to know exactly what they’re doing and are where they’re meant to be?
Jo Stockdale is the founder of Well Within Reach and passionately shares what she knows about helping children ‘learn well, do well and be well’.
She is a trainer, consultant, resource developer, and the focus of all her work is around strengthening social and emotional competencies, with a particular specialism in childhood brain development, from birth, throughout childhood and beyond. Every thought, decision, attitude, behaviour and belief come from the brain, and Jo works with both professionals in the Children & Young People’s sector, and with parents directly, to help them better understand and more effectively respond to their children by knowing more about what’s going on in their heads, and why.
Visit www.wellwithinreach.co.uk for more information.