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Toddlers to tweens: relearning how to play

Children's play is threatened, say experts who advise that kids – from toddlers to tweens – should be relearning how to play. Roughhousing and fantasy feed development.

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Can you define 'play'?

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But before advocates can launch a defense of play, they need to grapple with a surprisingly difficult question. What, exactly, is play?

It might seem obvious. Parents know when their children are playing, whether it's a toddler scribbling on a piece of paper, an infant shaking a rattle, or a pair of 10-year-olds dressing up and pretending to be superheroes.

But even Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary definition, "recreational activity; especially the spontaneous action of children," is often inaccurate, according to scientists and child development re-searchers. Play for children is neither simply recreational nor necessarily spontaneous, they say.

"Play is when children are using something they've learned, to try it out and see how it works, to use it in new ways – it's problem solving and enjoying the satisfaction of problems solv[ed]," says Diane Levin, a professor of education at Wheelock College in Boston. But Ms. Levin says that, in her class on the meaning and development of play, she never introduces one set definition.

"This is something that people argue about," she says.

Scientists and child advocates agree that there are many forms of play. There is "attunement play," the sort of interaction where a mother and infant might gaze at each other and babble back and forth. There is "object play," where a person might manipulate a toy such as a set of marbles; "rough and tumble play"; and "imaginative play." "Free play" is often described as kids playing on their own, without any adult supervision; "guided play" is when a child or other player takes the lead, but a mentor is around to, say, help facilitate the LEGO castle construction.

But often, says Dr. Brown at the National Institute for Play, a lot is happening all at once. He cites the time he tried to do a brain scan of his then-4-year-old grandson at play with his stuffed tiger.

"He was clearly playing," Brown recalls.

"And then he says to me, 'Grandpa, what does the tiger say?' I say, 'Roar!' And then he says, 'No, it says, "Moo!" ' and then laughs like crazy. How are you going to track that? He's pretending, he's making a joke, he's interacting."

This is one reason Brown says play has been discounted – both culturally and, until relatively recently, within the academic community, where detractors argue that play is so complex it cannot be considered one specific behavior, that it is an amalgamation of many different acts. These scientists – known as "play skeptics" – don't believe play can be responsible for all sorts of positive effects, in part because play itself is suspect.

"It is so difficult to define and objectify," Brown notes.

But most researchers agree that play clearly exists, even if it can't always be coded in the standard scientific way of other human behaviors. And the importance of play, Brown and others say, is huge.

Brown became interested in play as a young clinical psychiatrist when he was researching, somewhat incongruously, mass murderers. Although he concluded that many factors contributed to the psychosis of his subjects, Brown noticed that a common denominator was that none had participated in standard play behavior as children, such as interacting positively with parents or engaging in games with other children. As he continued his career, he took "play histories" of patients, eventually recording 6,000. He saw a direct correlation between play behavior and happiness, from childhood into adulthood.

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