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Raising Smart and Socially Well-Adjusted Children

The ongoing data is becoming exceedingly clear. If you want to see normal social, emotional and cognitive development in your children, then you must allow them the opportunity for free and imaginative play.

In her article published in the Scientific American, The Serious Need for Play, Melinda Wenner sums up the data this way: “imaginative play is crucial for normal social, emotional and cognitive development” and such play as a youngster “makes us better adjusted, smarter and less stressed.”

When it comes to play, the emphasis is on the word free. Wenner stresses the latter word stating, “Imaginative and rambunctious free play, as opposed to games or structured activities, is the most essential type.”

And while the impact of free play is most critical to social and emotional development, the overall impact on cognition is considered very significant as well, particularly when children involve the world of make believe.

The Research
Wenner notes the research of several people. She begins with psychiatrist Stuart Brown of the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston who spent some time working with Charles Whitman, the man who climbed to the top of a University of Texas Tower in 1966 and shot 46 people.

Later in a small pilot study, Brown also took a look at another 25 convicted murderers. The professor found that the majority of the killers, including Whitman, “shared two things in common: they were from abusive families, and they never played as kids.”

In the 42 years since that initial study, Brown has gone on to interview some 6,000 additional people. His findings suggest “that a lack of opportunities for unstructured, imaginative play can keep children from growing into happy, well-adjusted adults.”

According to Wenner, “a handful of studies support Brown’s conviction that a play-deprived childhood disrupts normal social, emotional and cognitive development in humans.”

One of the more interesting developments Wenner refers to is a 1997 study of children living in poverty and at high risk of school failure, published by the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation in Ypsilanti, Mich.

whatnotThe data reveals that those kids that were enrolled in a play-oriented preschool were more socially adjusted later in life than the kids who attended a play-free preschool. Therefore, pre-schools that focus entirely on instruction by teachers are missing a golden opportunity to help children become more socially well-adjusted.

In the area of stress relief, it is believed that free play helps kids work through anxiety and stress. Wenner discusses a study from Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry where three- and four-year-old children on their first day of preschool were split into two groups after being assessed for anxiety.

Those labeled anxious were further divided into two groups while those labeled not anxious were similarly divided. One group of anxious and one group of non-anxious students were combined and given the opportunity to play alone or with their peers for a period of 15 minutes. The remaining students were paired and assigned to sit at a small table and listen to a teacher for the same period of time.

Those allowed to play but deemed anxious at the outset had a twofold decrease in anxiousness as compared to those who had to listen to the story. However, one rather interesting development was the fact that those who played alone were calmer than those who played with peers.

Current Trends
Today there is growing data that free play is no longer something most children engage in. A paper published in 2005 in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine indicates free-play time for children fell 25% between 1981 and 1997.

The belief is that the parents of today are forgoing free playtime and replacing it with more structured activities. These structured games with rules can be great sources of fun and they do provide learning opportunities for children. They no doubt offer some assistance towards improving social skills of youngsters.

Billie/PartsnPiecesBut free play results in games without rules, so kids actively use their imagination to try out new activities and game variations while moving in and out of different roles. The lack of rules allows children to be more creative, a step that challenges their developing brain more than following a set of predetermined rules.

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects is that the free-play activity “should not have an obvious function in the context in which it is observed—meaning that it has, essentially, no clear goal.”

One of the critical skills children learn relates to social interaction. They very quickly learn that they will have no one else to play with if they are not fair with others or let their peers take a turn at a specific role. Simply stated, free play helps children learn negotiating skills.

The Effect on Cognition

While the impact on social and emotional development seems quite intuitive, the research also points towards play actually helping make kids smarter. Wenner quotes one study that clearly suggests play fosters creative thinking in youngsters.

Even play fighting, a staple of young boys, appears to have a positive intellectual impact. Phineas HIn yet another study, Wenner notes that “the more elementary school boys engaged in rough-housing, the better they scored on a test of social problem solving.”

In addition, free play with peers fosters communication skills in a youngster. That communication translates to help with language development, a critical component for academic success in the classroom.

Wenner concludes by pointing to Tufts University child development expert David Elkind. Play is “a way in which children learn,” Elkind says, “and in the absence of play, children miss learning experiences. Curiosity, imagination and creativity are like muscles: if you don’t use them, you lose them.”

The bottom line is actually quite simple:

“Parents should let children be children,” asserts Wenner, referring to Elkind as she writes. “Not just because it should be fun to be a child but because denying youth’s unfettered joys keeps kids from developing into inquisitive, creative creatures.”

Flickr photos courtesy of Radioflyer007, Billie/PartsnPieces, whatnot and Phineas H.


1 Margaret Johnson { 03.12.09 at 12:43 pm }

The above points is EXACTLY why I got on this mission to ship children’s software that is a GREAT video game, allows for alot of creative expression, and instills the love of reading. My goal is ramping up the play time by making really hard things to learn – like reading – PLAY. I’d love your opinion on ItzaBitza.

Margaret, CEO
Sabi (creators of ItzaBitza)

2 jsamson { 02.14.10 at 3:21 pm }

Agree with you totally. Children need free-play time. Unfortuately, the trend in public and private schools affords less of this than ever before. If you are able, homeschooling provides plenty of social and free-play opportunities, plus allows your family to enjoy life together. I wasn’t sure about it at first…but now I truly believe they are finally getting a top-notch education, free-play included!

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