A little bit of playtime, like a superfood, can have significant benefits for a child’s developing brain – but adult participation is essential for maximum outcomes.
Let’s explore the answer using *Kettys (a mother’s) experience.
Fifteen years ago, I walked into a classroom as a first-year preschool teacher.Ambitious and eager to impress. Looking back, though, with what I know now, I wish I wouldn’t have bothered with Excel or rote memorization. I wish instead I had leveraged the power of brain-building interactive play. For years, we’ve known that play-based learning is far superior to rote memorization. Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child tells us, as well as countless other institutions, that play, and especially the back and forth interactions, the serve and return, the alternating comments, questions, gestures between children and adults when they play together, that’s what helps build neural connections in the child’s brain. And in particular, they build the brain’s prefrontal cortex. That’s the executive control center of the brain. The part that manages emotions, solves problems, makes plans — all things that children have to do when they play.
So, when we think of it that way, play is actually hard work. If learning is like a workout for the brain, then play-based learning is the heavy lifting. And just as heavy lifting builds muscle, play-based learning builds the brain’s architecture. So then where do we as grownups come in? It’s those interactions when a child says something and a parent or teacher says something back, those interactions help the child to persist, to stick with their plan, to keep rebuilding the block tower each time it falls. So it’s the play paired with the adult interactions. It’s like superfood for the brain. The research community in supportive play is so resonant, I would expect to see children in nearly every household, every preschool and kindergarten classroom playing for most of their waking hours. But that’s far from reality.
We don’t see widespread uptake of play among parents or teachers, and sometimes we even see resistance. So what’s going on? What’s driving us as parents and teachers to ignore the overwhelming research when it comes to play? After years of teaching preschool, coaching teachers, coaching parents and analyzing my own parenting, I’ve realized our best intentions are getting in the way. We live in a comparative culture, and we worry that our child won’t be good enough.
Won’t be good enough for the soccer team, won’t be ready for kindergarten, won’t be as smart as their classmates. And we worry that if our child doesn’t measure up, it will be our fault. Our hyperfocus on our children and our students’ success is backfiring. And it’s exacerbated by two forces I see impacting the large majority of parents and teachers. First, the need for immediate gratification and quick results. And second, our own discomfort with play, either because we don’t have the time or energy, or because we just don’t know how to play anymore. On the topic of immediate gratification, I think back to that Excel document I created as a first-year teacher.
That document was the manifestation of my anxiety, because often when we feel anxious or out of control, we revert back to what we can control. For parents and teachers, we often revert to fact-based teaching because we see pretty immediate results that affirm our efforts. Whereas we can’t see the connections in the child’s brain that fire when they finally get that wobbly block tower to stay standing. The immediate result of something like our child learning a new letter, it gives us this dopamine rush that then sets off a flywheel effect because as we see and feel the results of our work more and more, we subconsciously begin to prioritize that type of teaching. Recently, my staff was coaching a group of school principals on the importance of play.
And one of the principals said that his teachers just weren’t on board. They said their students are too far behind to play. And those well-intentioned teachers, they were equating academic learning that their students needed with methods that would show quick, concrete results. They felt really proud and accomplished when they could talk to the students’ parents and say how many letters and numbers they learned that month. Because we as parents and teachers, we share this universal desire for our kids to do well. And we will pour our energy and resources into making that happen. And that’s showing up in our spending habits.
Marketers are preying on it as they advertise the latest and greatest toys, flashcards, iPad apps for brain development, even kits that claim to teach your baby to read. Seriously, babies. And because we worry that our kids won’t measure up, we fall prey to that. The global market for educational toys surpassed 68 billion dollars in 2021 and is projected to reach 132 billion by 2028. But those smart toys, they’re a far cry from the interactive, playful learning that I was talking about earlier. That type of learning, the real gold standard of early education, it’s not immediate. It takes time and it doesn’t lend itself to a checklist or an Excel document.
The second force I see negatively impacting play-based learning is that we, as grown ups, parents and teachers, just don’t always like hearing that play-based learning might require some of us. Because that means it will take time, energy and skills that we don’t think we have. But not only is it worth our time, it can be done in really small doses. So take this simple example of bath time. If I’m a busy mom who has a few extra dollars to spend, I might pop my kiddo into the tub, remember that buying bath toys has been on my never-ending mental to-do list for weeks, so I whip out my phone and I use that five minutes to go over to Amazon and buy the top-rated bath toys. And I’m not here to say that those bath toys are harmful for your child. They’re not. But you’re busy.
So what you do with that five to 10 minutes, it matters. And you know what would be way better than scrolling Amazon and even better than those bath toys? Three things that I can almost guarantee you have in your home. Measuring cups, kitchen sponges and you. Because a couple household materials dropped into the bathtub, and this mundane routine becomes fun and surprisingly energizing bonding time for you and your child. And bonus, instead of the manufacturer-designed toy telling your child how to play, your child’s brain has to do the heavy lifting.
And that’s that superfood for the brain. Now, over the past 10 years coaching parents, I have heard over and over again that parents don’t feel good enough at their job, at parenting. And there’s so much pressure on us, and sometimes it feels like we’re supposed to innately know how to get down on the floor and build our baby’s brains. And over the past few years, the social media world has exploded with even more advice for parents and teachers. How to affirm children’s feelings, but still set clear boundaries. 15 ways to use a cardboard box in your classroom. And DIY Halloween costumes that are sure to win the school costume contest.
And as I rattle those off, I could just imagine the rolling eyes from parents and teachers, and I share that frustration. Because sometimes all the chatter only makes us feel more pressured to get it right. When it comes to our children’s learning, though, we don’t have to be the perfect Etsy parent or the perfect Pinterest teacher. We have to prioritize interactions and be OK with them being imperfect. Because it may seem silly to admit that we don’t feel good at playing with our kids, but as adults, it’s not always intuitive. Sure, most of us played a lot when we were little.
We’d tie the blankets around their neck and bound around the house like superheroes. But as we grew up, that type of play wasn’t encouraged anymore. And just as with any skill that we don’t use, we risk losing it. A couple months ago, my colleague and I, we were leading a workshop for parents and teachers. And we brought the materials like shaving cream and plastic straws and buttons and pipe cleaners and just asked the parents and teachers to play, to create. Everyone froze. Then, slowly but surely, people started to create. And by the end of the session, their faces were lit up as they shared their creations with the rest of the group. And it reminded me that as adults, we have to let go of our expectation that we get it right. Because if we opt out of play, based on what we know about how important our interactions are to children’s development, if we opt out of play, it has major implications for their brain development.
Now I know that finding the energy to play with our kids and students can be hard. Even in small doses, it takes our undivided attention. But it’s so worth it. Because in all my experience and research, I haven’t found any evidence that making the homemade cookies for the school bake sale matters for your child’s brain development. I haven’t found any evidence that sewing that winning Halloween costume means they’ll do well in school. But what does matter is that the interactions leave space for your child to learn, to persist, to play, to experiment.
You have the power to have an enormous impact on their brain development. You are helping build the network of neural connections that lay the foundation for all of their future learning. So this week at bath time, I hope that you’ll put aside the top-rated toys, forget that mental to-do list for a moment, grab some measuring cups, some kitchen sponges, and give it a try. Thank you.