[Premium Content] Why The Absence Of Play In A Child’s Life Can Lead To Bigger Voids As An Adult
Digital technology and helicopter parents are depriving children of more than a simple after-school romp. The absence of play in a child’s life can lead to much bigger voids as an adult, says Tom Bainbridge
In recent years, children have been encouraged to play less and less. Many U.S. schools have reduced or eliminated recess in order to allow for more study time. And many parents fear that allowing their children to play outdoors leaves them prone to being attacked or kidnapped.
On top of this, increasing legislation within schools is reducing the likelihood that children will be able to engage in sports requiring any level of physical contact. In place of play, children are taking up more sedentary activities such as video games and online gaming. You will typically see articles of this kind claiming that the shift from active or “real” play toward virtual gaming is paving the way for a rapidly accelerating obesity epidemic—and I don’t disagree—but there are other detrimental factors that are equally worrisome.
The concern of many researchers is that decreased play in childhood results in emotionally and socially stunted adults, potentially leading to significant problems later in life. We can’t discount the fact that a lack of physical play in childhood might not only lead to obesity but also has the potential to leave children socially maladapted to the modern world.
We view play as frivolous, something done in the name of fun, but that’s not really what it is. Many things are fun and frivolous—watching a good movie, riding a rollercoaster, reading a book—but play is not the same. Play is an evolved exploratory occupation that aids in the development of many social and emotional traits. All social animals play— dogs, apes, dolphins and even rats. In fact, if you take a lab rat and deprive it of play, it will become agitated, and in later life, show neurophysiological and neurochemical impairments. These show up as behavioral abnormalities linked with reduced cortical development, including an inability to regulate aggression.
The reason behind this connection is somewhat simple in principle. At birth, the genome of an animal contains all of the raw information required to create the incredibly complex brain. But it could never even come close to having all of the information required to give an infant the social abilities required in adulthood. The brain is essentially a blank slate, only through development and exposure to the world around it does it evolve and develop. Play, as it turns out, is one of the key drivers for this development.Children who are deprived of play are more likely to become antisocial or criminally prone adultsClick To Tweet
Play-fighting and rough-and-tumble play are present in many animal circles, but to illustrate its complexity we will once again look to lab rats. Rats will play-fight, nip and pin each other down in a dramatic representation of a dominance struggle, but neither rat is showing genuine signs of aggression. While the larger and stronger rat can “win” at any time, it will allow the smaller rat to claim victory on occasion because this enables the animals to maintain the play dynamic. If the larger rat were to dominate all of the time, the smaller one would stop engaging, and then he would lose his friend. The rat learns to regulate its behavior for the betterment of its social interactions. Play-fighting also allows the animals to develop social and emotional regulation and a sense of fair play. They learn how to interact with each other in a manner that is aggressive enough to be exciting, but not so aggressive that it becomes dangerous.
We see this in humans, too. A child will play with a parent by hitting them, retreating and seeing what happens. Over time, the child will hit harder in an exploratory behavior, seeking boundaries. As soon as the strikes go beyond what the adult is happy with, the play stops, and from this, the child understands the level to which this is acceptable. Children do the same with each other. Have you ever seen young children playing soccer? They will kick and push each other, but as soon as someone goes a little too far, the game stops and everybody loses. Eventually, the play becomes fairer and more rewarding for all involved.
Engagement in play from a young age increases the speed at which a rat achieves full frontal lobe regulatory functions and this, in turn, leads to socialization. The animal is then able to ignore aggression and other harmful urges in order to maintain social order. The same thing happens in humans. Children who are deprived of the opportunity to play are more likely to become antisocial or criminally prone adults. Additionally, the social development of third-grade children (cooperation, sharing, and regulation of physical and verbal aggression, all developed during play) is a strong predictor of academic achievement as they mature.Physical activity in children has dropped dramatically in the last two decades, and the decline doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. Click To Tweet
Not only do we need to consider the academic effects of these findings, we also need to look at the bigger picture. Children who are not “fun to be around” often have fewer friends and a much less engaging social life. Bearing in mind that socialization is the backbone of interpersonal relationships later in life, we can see how these early developmental stages can have a large impact. There are a lot of leaps here, and, of course, many of these outcomes have a multitude of contributing factors, but consider this: While play has decreased rapidly over the last few decades, ADHD has increased. Incidence has risen from 7.8% of American children in 2003 to 11% in 2011, representing 6.4 million children diagnosed. Children with ADHD are shown to have a frontal lobe displaying around 5% reduced activity. And it’s not an unreasonable assumption that the importance of play in the development of this area of the brain may be involved.
Physical activity in children has dropped dramatically in the last two decades, and the decline doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. While this is undoubtedly leading to a worsening of the obesity epidemic, it certainly has other detrimental and far-reaching impacts.
S. M. Pellis, V. C. Pellis, and B. T. Himmler, “How Play Makes for a More Adaptable Brain,” American Journal of Play 7(1): 73–98.
Arthur L. Caplan and Lee H. Igel, “The Common Core Is Taking Away Kids’ Recess— and That Makes No Sense,” Forbes, January 15, 2015, http://www.forbes.com/sites/ leeigel/2015/01/15/the-common-core-is- taking-away-kids-recess-and-that-makes-no- sense/#36f32586153d.
Jaak Panskepp, “Can Play Diminish ADHD and Facilitate the Construction of the Social Brain?” Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 16(2): 57–66.
“Key Findings: Trends in the Parent-Report of Health Care Provider-Diagnosis and Medication Treatment for ADHD: United States, 2003–2011,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, December 10, 2014, https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/adhd/features/ key- ndings-adhd72013.html.
Gian Vittorio Caprara, et al, “Prosocial Foundations of Children’s Academic Achievement,” Psychological Science 11(4):302–06.
Marc Bekoff, Colin Allen and Gordon M. Burghardt, The Cognitive Animal (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2001).