Play is the Thing by Ben Kingston-Hughes

One of the hardest things about being a play specialist is that very few people take me seriously. Almost everything I do looks or sounds frivolous, unimportant and often downright silly. Very few people would watch a group of children playing pat-a-cake or simply clapping, for instance, and comment on the huge potential for neurological growth and life-long health. Very few people watching children play would note the firework display of activity in the child’s upper brain intrinsically linked to developing an understanding of cause and effect, structuring sequential actions, executive functioning, problem solving, divergent thinking and creativity.

Even as adults who work with children we are sometimes hesitant to truly recognise play’s full potential. Understanding the implications of play can run contrary to many widely held beliefs about education. Surely play can’t really be as powerful as that? Surely other educational agenda must be somehow more important. Why open ourselves up to potential ridicule when the benefits of play seem both nebulous and abstract when compared with the concrete milestones of reading, writing and mathematics?

The truth is that the benefits of play are no longer nebulous or abstract. A growing concordance of neurological evidence points to the fact that far from being an optional extra for childhood, play is the foundation for every aspect of development on a child’s journey into adulthood.

Even a simple look at brain growth shows that a child’s brain does not grow to its full potential if left unattended in a dark room like a mushroom. Brain growth is experiential which means that children need a broad range of neurologically rich experiences to make sure their brains grow to their full size and complexity. When do children get the broadest range of experiences? When they are playing. Play is not merely fun for children but a fundamentally important brain growth tool creating the neurological architecture for all future learning.

We also know that the urge to play is a primitive survival instinct in the same part of the brain as food, sex and sleep. When children and adults play they produce similar biochemical responses to when they eat.  These biochemicals are incredibly potent, creating the optimum conditions for well-being. They also include prescription level anti-anxiety medication such as benzodiazepines, opioids and oxytocin.

This means two things. Firstly, it means that when children are playing, they are self-medicating with drugs that are actually prescribed for anxiety. Secondly it means that depriving children of play is the bio-chemical equivalent of starving them. You would never deliberately starve children and yet it somehow seems acceptable in our society to deprive them of play. How often are children restricted from playing simply because an adult deems the play behaviour to be silly, unproductive or even mistakes play for negative behaviour? How many children in school regularly lose their break or lunchtime when they have not behaved or have failed to complete their work?

On the subject of biochemicals, Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) is an essential hormone that speeds up brain growth in children. It is not produced in any significant quantities when we sit still or watch a screen. Play, however, massively increases the production of this essential chemical, significantly increasing brain growth. BDNF also plays a crucial role in brain health, making it a vital chemical throughout our lives and potentially mitigating the neurological damage caused by anxiety.

For me though, more important than any of the neuroscience of play, are the moments of play where children begin to thrive. Time and time again, working with vulnerable children, I have seen precious moments of play that have enabled children to overcome their anxiety and experience joy. Play has enabled them to forget for a moment the abuse or anxiety of their life and simply be children again. I have seen this far too many times for it to be merely coincidence. From the selectively mute children who will only talk to us when they are sitting in carboard box dens to the abused children who smile for the first time when they don their superhero costumes, I see play actually changing lives for the better.

I recently worked as a with a group of disabled children managing a team providing additional play activities as part of a summer scheme. One day we were playing at being superheroes. One child, who required oxygen for most of the day, indicated that he wanted to take his oxygen mask off so that he could wear a superhero mask. After careful consideration, we allowed this to happen for a very brief time whilst we raced him round in his wheelchair because we thought this would be a really positive experience for him. The child’s parent later expressed concern that playing at being a superhero play was not important enough to remove the mask. However, I had taken a photo mid-play which I showed to the parent and she could instantly see how important and valuable the experience had been for her son. If there was ever a pictorial definition of the word ‘joy’ it was the child’s smile as he raced around feeling the wind on his face, possibly for the first time in his life. The picture captured how a brief moment of superhero play was not in any way frivolous but a unique and important moment of precious joy.

So the next time someone tells you play is frivolous or complains that children need to be doing something more important, you now know exactly what to tell them. Play is not just important, it is essential. It is not just good for children, it is profound and life changing. It may sometimes look frivolous but it is building the brains, bones, bodies, hearts, lungs, well-being, confidence, problem solving, imagination, academic skills, creativity, mental health and even life expectancy of our children. From neuroscience and evolutionary biology to biochemistry and epigenetics, play is potentially the most important thing children will ever do.

Ben Kingston-Hughes – Managing Director of Inspired Children

For more information on Play watch out for Ben’s new book – “A Very Unusual Journey into Play” Published in April 2022 by SAGE publishing. Also look out for Ben’s inspirational keynote speeches and training at http://www.inspiredchildren.org.uk