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?
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.