How Should Adults Interfere with Child’s Play?

by Rick on April 29, 2016

Play is the highest form of research 

– Albert Einstein

When adults fear for their children’s future success, they tend to see play as a frivolous waste of time. They are just as wrong about that today as they have been in the past.

Play is necessary for optimal brain development. In fact,

as Alison Gopnik and her colleagues at the University of California Berkeley have shown, children are in a constant process of observing, questioning, creating hypotheses, testing them, collecting data, and changing their minds in order to make their brains into an ever-improving causal map of the world. Should adults interfere with this?Links

Gaming is subtly different from playing in that it serves a complementary form of brain development as players focus more on achieving goals than experimenting. In this process the prefrontal cortex organizes the brain’s mental resources toward accomplishing objectives. Being successful often includes, self-control, taking different perspectives, connecting, collaborating, thinking critically, taking on challenges, communicating, and learning–all the essential life skills as Ellen Galinsky so nicely lays out in Mind in the Making. Games develop our pre-frontal cortex, our executive self, the decision making hub of our brains. Should we make it stop?

Then, there is the critical role of imaginative play. The mental maps we make of the world are always gross approximations of only part of reality. In order to include all the incoming data, to see new possibilities and to innovate, our brains need to spend time in non-goal-directed activity. As we know, children do this quite naturally, also. Can we interrupt?

As Jane McGonigal points out in her brilliant Ted Talk, gaming can even help your sense of well being.

If video games had been around when I was growing up, I probably would have been a lot smarter.

Is it wrong to mess with all the natural benefits of play? No. Interfering with child’s play has its place. The adult world is a major part of what the child’s brain needs to make a map of. When “real life” requires it, parents should interrupt play in order to direct the child toward the requirements of the environment. Teachers are not being “paid the big bucks” to let kids play. Their job is to direct that budding scientific mind toward the skills necessary for being successful in the world–the world that is becoming. Facing up to the challenges of school also helps develop the brain. Taking time out from play to focus attention on what an adult thinks is important is important. Weeding the garden, doing the dishes, cleaning up your room, practicing skills, boring repetition, finishing that essay so it has no mistakes, doing your math homework simply because some adult thinks it is important,… all this also builds character and builds the brain. Children can often get a notion in their head that they are “no good at” something. That might be the very thing parents and teachers should insist on. At the same time, adults must value the critical importance of  social challenges to cognitive development.

It is as important for children, as it is for all of us, to vary what we do. A constant diet of anything is not so good. We want our children to map the whole world onto their brains, and to experience challenges of all sorts, not just the ones they are currently attracted to. Therefore, there should be more conflict in the home about how kids spend their time, not less, all the while communicating respect and trust for that powerful little engine inside that is driving children to build their brains.

How should adults interfere? Creatively, persistently, variably, tirelessly and lovingly, so that our interference builds our relationship rather than damaging it. This includes learning as much from children as they learn from us.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Rick May 3, 2016 at 6:30 am

This just in from Larry Arnstein:
“Play is crucial. Here is one memory I have of play. I was maybe four years old, and was supposed to build something with a classmate. I didn’t know anybody, so I was scared by this assignment. But there was another child who didn’t know anybody, and so we were thrown together. What we were supposed to be doing was making some great structure out of blocks. Neither of us had a clue about what to do. But we knew we were supposed to do something, so we put together a little house we made out of blocks, and we put a sign on it. Our sign was “Sweet House.” We imagined that our little house would be a place where you could go and buy sweets. I think that our efforts were not rewarded by the teachers, but by that time we didn’t care. We were friends. We have remained friends until today.”
Wonderful story, Larry. Perfect story about the challenges that all kids face, how they are up to the task, and how they handle those challenges. Thank you.

Rick May 3, 2016 at 8:30 pm

Lisa Sunbury Gerber “I’m confused. Interfering with a child’s play is never a good thing as I understand it, especially if we are talking about children elementary age and under. Your post talks about three things…. hands on (real world and social) exploratory play, imaginative play, and Gaming. Gaming is not “play” as far as I am concerned. I would not encourage gaming for preschool or elementary aged children and severely limit it for older children. Otherwise, I don’t think it’s ever a good idea to interfere with a child’s play. Can you clarify, Rick?‬”

Lisa, I don’t blame you for being (mildly) shocked that I would entertain the idea that it might sometimes be a good idea for parents to interfere with their kids’ playing. As you know I have always agreed with you. I keep being challenged by the research that shows that not everything children are naturally drawn to is always great, that too much of anything can be bad, and my own experience that sometimes children need to be led away from some playing, and encouraged to take on some real-world challenges.

Marty Dutcher May 18, 2016 at 8:31 am

Thanks for this post, Rick, it is a valuable read. I love your readers’ meaningful comments too. As you know, the heart of my approach includes how anything framed in what we “should” or “shouldn’t” do invokes opinions on both sides. Though this can be a good thing, it frequently triggers guilt and/or defensive argument. Though I love a well-intentioned passionate argument, I have found that questioning what we do using the language of “does it work or not” leads to a more open discussion and is more suited to what it is we really are looking for, what we really want: how to make life work for all of us rather than learning what we should or shouldn’t do. In context, then, interfering with a child’s play sometimes works, and sometimes doesn’t, inviting a discussion about when and why something “works” or doesn’t. It seems that having this discussion with our partners as well as with young children is both a learning opportunity about, and results in, cooperation and partnership.

Rick May 18, 2016 at 4:16 pm

Good point, Marty.

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