The science of brain development is providing concrete evidence that there is real power in play. While often dismissed as “just fun,” play is the vital activity that children use to learn about and interact with their world, and gain the mental, physical and social skills necessary to succeed in their adult lives. As Professor Karen Hutchison of Rowan University says, “Play is actually the work of a child in which they are preparing themselves for adult roles and for society at large.” For a child, play is the vehicle for exploring and learning, developing new skills, and connecting with others. Through self-directed play, children can follow their interests, explore the unknown, link outcomes with choices, conquer their fears, and make friends.
Play also has important links to developing key skills that serve as a foundation for life-long success, including critical thinking, communication, problem solving, and collaboration. Often referred to as 21st century skills, these capabilities complement core subject matter knowledge and are highly valued in a world that is increasingly complex, competitive, and interconnected.
At Boston Children’s Museum, we strive to provide a rich environment that stimulates children’s natural curiosity and creativity. We work closely with researchers to develop play-based learning activities for children to explore. The Museum is a multi-sensory, hands-on, active, and child-centered environment which offers children unique opportunities for playfulness – to freely and joyfully explore, engage and connect with the world in which we live.
Play and Learning
“Play is the highest form of research.” — Albert Einstein
Cognitive research has shown the important connection between early childhood experiences and intellectual development. The most important time for a brain is when it is young and growing. Humans are born with 100 billion brain neurons, which make connections through synapses that “wire” the brain for thinking. Early childhood experiences affect the types and amounts of these synaptic connections. To develop the area of the brain responsible for higher-order thinking, children need to have rich experiences that stimulate all of their senses. For a child, play is a critical path to those experiences that engage their senses and provide the foundation for future learning.
In a TED talk of 2008 on Serious Play at the Art Center Design conference in Pasadena California, designer Tim Brown asserted that play is at the root of creative thinking, that playfulness can help us do our jobs better, and find more innovative solutions. Play can help us be more adaptive, collaborative, spontaneous and joyful. Brown believes that the relaxation and trust resulting from people playing together can lead to an increased willingness to take risks.
Dr. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Professor of Psychology at Temple University and best-selling author of the book “Einstein Never used Flashcards: How children really learn and why they need to play more and memorize less” and of the book “Play = Learning: How play motivates and enhances children’s cognitive and social-emotional growth” argues that play-based learning environments are more effective than classroom, memorization-based, learning environments at teaching our children. As Dr. Hirsh-Pasek points out in an interview she gave for The View, you can teach your children that 1+1=2 and they may know the fact of addition, but ask them whether they want one or two scoops of ice cream and they understand the meaning.
Television, video games, and the internet are ubiquitous and compelling media that tempt children every waking minute. While fun, these largely passive activities reduce the amount of active and social play children engage in. Worryingly, research into childhood development suggests a direct link between an increase in these sedentary, socially-isolated activities and the growth in childhood stress, anxiety disorders, and obesity. It is particularly telling that both the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights and the American Academy of Pediatrics took an active decision to promote childhood play and limit screen time.
Increased rates of anxiety, obesity, emotional trauma, and violence have alarmed pediatricians and child psychologists. Many believe play can be the antidote to isolation, worry, loneliness, fear, and violence. Active play fosters sound emotional and mental health. Through play children strengthen their confidence, learn to trust others, create friendships, and feel safe. These benefits develop a sense of belonging, critical to the feeling of well-being. The Let’s Move! campaign recommends 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous active play every day. It may sound like a lot, but it doesn’t all need to happen at one time.
As Dr. Ken Ginsburg, pediatrician and child development researcher at Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia, stated in guidelines laid out in the American Academy of Pediatricians journal in 2011, “Play is essential to the social, emotional, cognitive, and physical wellbeing of children beginning in early childhood.”
Right from the beginning, play fosters language development. When we play Peekaboo, or imitate a baby’s sounds and smiles, or ask a silly question and wait for the baby’s response, we teach the basics of communication and conversation. And the more we talk, especially in engaging, playful ways that encourage responses, the more language babies learn! Soon, they will not only be understanding and babbling, but saying words!
For toddlers who are beginning to talk, play creates opportunities to learn new words. Silly songs and movement games teach words and concepts such as body parts and opposites. Active play can involve naming places and actions. Simple pretend play, like feeding a baby doll or playing with a doctor kit or toy farm, lets children repeat what a parent, doctor, or farmer might say.
The mastery of the basics of language, which usually occurs between the ages of two and three and a half, heralds a flowering of creativity. Children build and play in imaginary worlds. They use language to pretend, be silly, ask questions, and figure things out. Their wordplay, songs, and storytelling build foundations for reading.
As preschoolers and kindergarteners, children whose language is strong are likely to be popular playmates. They tell stories that are fun to play out, and can keep conversation going. They ask interesting questions, and they can use their words to solve problems, explain their ideas, and compromise. As they play together, children build on each other’s ideas and learn new words from each other.
At every age, adults can enhance the language-building power of play. Without taking over the child’s play or turning it into a lesson, adults can build on children’s ideas. They can supply words for what children are doing and ask questions that provoke thinking. They can extend a back-and-forth conversation, playing with sounds, words, or ideas. They can take on a role and play it with humor and gusto. They can add “juicy words” – specific, interesting words like “excavator,” ”camouflage,” or “scrumptious” - that are fun to say and make play more fun.
What do J.K Rowling, Jim Carrey, Edgar Allen Poe, and Oprah Winfrey have in common? They have all had wonderfully successful lives after overcoming hardships, poverty or trauma in their younger years. So is there something more fundamental that helps put children on the path to success? Ellen Galinsky, in her best-selling book “Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs”, groups the research into seven critical areas that children need most: (1) focus and self-control; (2) perspective taking; (3) communicating; (4) making connections; (5) critical thinking; (6) taking on challenges; (7) self-directed, engaged learning. For each of these skills, Galinsky shows parents what the studies have proven, and she provides numerous concrete things that parents can do to strengthen these skills in children.
Play is a wonderful way to nurture these characteristics in children. Through explorative play, children can find endless ways to satisfy their curiosity. Working out difficult puzzles or games helps a child learn both patience and perseverance, and builds a child’s sense of accomplishment and confidence. Social play promotes children’s negotiation skills and supports emotional development. So encourage your children to play and get them started in the right direction down that path to success.
Play and creativity are intimately linked. The experience of play and the creative process both require observation, discovery, experimentation, questioning, and making connections. Also central to both play and creativity is divergent thinking, where many paths offer potential solutions.
Imaginary play, drawing, painting, block-building, dancing, singing, climbing, running, all enhance gross- and fine-motor development and provide rich experiences that bolster a child’s brain at the most important time for its development. Creative play also provides children with opportunities to express themselves and work through emotional situations in a non-threatening manner.
At Boston Children’s Museum, we enable active and creative play in its many forms. Our many exhibits and programs link play with learning and allow children to become the agent of their own learning. As examples, our Art Studio encourages children to explore ideas and find out about artists and art from around the world, while also inventing and making artwork of their own. Our KidStage introduces children to the wondrous world of performing arts, allowing children to participate in short performances and be “in the spotlight.” Music programs engage children and families in the joy of music making. And Johnny’s Workbench is a space for kids to work with hand tools and natural materials. So come, play, and create – your child’s brain and body will be the better for it.
Tim Brown, Designer, TED Talk, Creativity and Play
"You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation." Plato
While it is clear that play, both solitary and in groups, enhances children’s cognitive development, group play also provides important cultural and social benefits. Group play transcends cultural, social and ethnic differences and allows children to make connections with others who may not look or speak like them. Play is a natural way for young children from different backgrounds to engage with others, sharing joyful experiences that build trust.
How we interpret child's play and development differs from culture to culture. Different families may make different distinctions between child's play and a child's other activities. Some families tend to see play and academic activity separately. Others see little distinction between play and a child's other activities, and put a strong emphasis on social-interaction in child's play. And others believe that child-initiated play and other experiences are already related to the child's development of later academic experiences. Notwithstanding different perspectives on play, it is widely accepted that group play serves as an initiation into a wider cultural life, critical to future success, academically and professionally.
Boston Children’s Museum is a diverse and welcoming environment where children have the opportunity to see and play with others from different ethnic, racial and social groups on an equal footing. By encouraging children to play with others from different backgrounds, we develop our children’s social skills, tolerance, and instill in them a sense of understanding and enjoyment of other cultures. Through Boston Children’s Museum exhibits such as Boston Black, Global Gallery and Japanese House children are also exposed to the tremendous diversity of cultures in their world.