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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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It has a lot to do with joy, he says: "In the play studies I'd find many adults who had a pretty playful childhood but then confined themselves to grinding, to always being responsible, always seeing just the next task. [They] are less flexible and have a chronic, smoldering depression. That lack of joyfulness gets to you."

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Brown later worked with ethologists – scientists who study animal behavior – to observe how other species, from honeybees to Labrador retrievers, play. This behavior in a variety of species is sophisticated – from "self-handicapping," so a big dog plays fairly with a small dog, to cross-species play, such as a polar bear romping with a sled dog. He also studied research on play depravation, noting how rat brains change negatively when they are deprived of some sorts of play.

Brown became convinced that human play – for adults as well as children – is not only joyful but neces­sary, a behavior that has survived despite connections in some studies to injury and danger (for example, animals continue to play even though they're likely to be hunted while doing so) and is connected to the most ancient part of human biology.

'Executive' play

Other scientists are focusing on the specific impacts of play. In a small, brick testing room next to the "construction zone" at the Boston Children's Museum, for instance, Daniel Friel sits with a collection of brightly colored tubing glued to a board. The manager of the Early Childhood Cognition Lab in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), he observes children at play with puppets and squeaky toys, rubber balls and fabulously created pipe sculptures. Depending on the experiment, Mr. Friel and other researchers record such data as the time a child plays with a particular object or what color ball is picked out of a container. These observations lead to insights on how children form their understanding of the world.

"We are interested in exploratory play, how kids develop cause and effect, how they use evidence," he says.

The collection of tubing, for instance, is part of a study designed by researcher Elizabeth Bonawitz and tests whether the way an object is presented can limit a child's exploration. If a teacher introduces the toy, which has a number of hidden points of interest – a mirror, a button that lights up, etc. – but tells a child about only one feature, the child is less likely to discover everything the toy can do than a child who receives the toy from a teacher who feigns ignorance. Without limiting instruction from an adult, it seems, a child is far more creative. In other words, adult hovering and instruction, from how to play soccer to how to build the best LEGO city, can be limiting.

Taken together, the MIT experiments show children calculating probabilities during play, developing assumptions about their physical environment, and adjusting perceptions according to the direction of authority figures. Other researchers are also discovering a breathtaking depth to play: how it develops chronological awareness and its link to language development and self-control.

The latter point has been a hot topic recently. Self-regulation – the buzzword here is "executive function," referring to abilities such as planning, multitasking, and reasoning – may be more indicative of future academic success than IQ, standardized tests, or other assessments, according to a host of recent studies from institutions such as Pennsylvania State University and the University of British Columbia.

Curriculums that boost executive function have become increasingly popular. Two years ago, Elizabeth Billings-Fouhy, director of the public Children's Place preschool in Lexington, Mass., decided to adopt one such program, called Tools of the Mind. It was created by a pair of child development experts – Deborah Leong and Elena Bodrova – in the early 1990s after a study evaluating federal early literacy efforts found no positive outcomes.

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