Did Playtime Make you Smarter?

Dr. Judith Gerardi

Professor, Empire State College SUNY

Playtime is a vital and integral part of psychological development. It is not trivial or a waste of time. 

We know that play is fun and that enjoyment is an essential part of life. Most of us, however, have never stopped to think about its significance in making us who we are and how we behave. Let’s reflect for a moment on playtime.

Did Playtime Make you Smarter?Children develop into adults through both physical maturation and learning, which psychology defines as change in behavior as the result of experience. Parents and other caregivers show young children how to act by modeling expected behaviors, habits, and language. Young children eagerly model the adults in their life, learning from them. Learning also occurs through interaction with other children, both family members and friends. Especially during childhood, learning takes place through direct experience and modeling, and both are characteristic of play.

Play is a particularly effective platform for skills development because it is freely chosen by the child, is enjoyable, involves repetition and practice, and has inherent rewards. In a safe environment with adults present or nearby, very young children observe effective behaviors in people like themselves and have the opportunity to practice such behaviors. The right play opportunities provide benefits in three different areas of psychological development: social skills, emotional regulation, and cognitive abilities. How does play further these developments? Some ways are obvious, some are less so.

Interactions with other people are shaped by social skills, which allow individuals to correctly interpret the actions of others, determine how to respond to those actions, and judge how to behave in a range of social situations. Play is an excellent platform for learning social skills. Children can try out positive or negative behaviors and observe reactions to those actions. Through observation, modeling, and action, young children learn social skills.

Social skills also can develop through make-believe play. For example, a young child can have a figure (doll, action figure, toy animal) act in an unacceptable way and then proceed to tell the figure that it was wrong or bad. Taking both roles in an interaction in this way, the child is both the transgressor and the voice of reason or morality. This allows very young children to gain practice with different behaviors and to develop their moral inner voice.

Emotions make us human, and young children express their emotions naturally. Emotional regulation refers to the modulation of both the feelings themselves and to the expression of those feelings. The experience of emotion varies among individuals. For example, some children are prone to rage while others are not.  Social, cultural, and individual expectations govern when it is appropriate to express emotions, how strongly, and in what ways. Through family interactions and play, young children learn to express different emotions in the family and outside of it.

Play invariably involves both disappointment and excitement. The safe environment of play provides opportunities for children to experience and regulate these and other emotions. For example, they learn to moderate desires such as self-interest by tolerating the necessity of waiting for their turn with a particular toy. Adult guidance is important. It gives voice to what has happened and what was learned. For example, adults typically instruct young children to share toys. The words become effective when there is subsequent follow up consisting of the adult describing a play interaction to the child in the moment, when it occurs: ‘Your playmate played with the toy, you waited for your turn, and then you played with it. You each took a turn, and you each got to enjoy the toy.’ Adults make the dynamic explicit by verbalizing it; this helps the child gain clarity about the event.

Intelligence and learning are based on cognitive abilities, which include attention, understanding, memory, reasoning, and, in later development, various analytic skills. Cognitive abilities allow us to make sense of the world. They are used to gather information, build knowledge, achieve mastery, learn about new situations, solve dilemmas, and create working theories that explain the world as we experience it. These skills are fundamental to academic learning and success in school and at university.

Cognitive abilities and skills are specifically developed during child’s play. This is done in three ways: 1) direct experience: determining rules of simple games, learning principles of construction and physics, basic counting and arithmetic, observing patterns, exercising memory, and so on; 2) language: clear communication about ongoing play; 3) mental exploration: thought, imagination, fantasy, and creativity are mental actions that promote problem solving by exploring a range of options within a play task.

Mental exploration offers the child an avenue to explore self and environment, an ordinary developmental activity. It expands learning and psychological development by taking children beyond the restrictions of lived experience and initiating them into the life of the mind. It provides an outlet for intellectual curiosity and leads to intellectual mastery, both being essential to the highest levels of intelligent behavior. Playing with young children, you can see the operation of curiosity and the excitement of mastering something new. These simple experiences are crucial to the development of habits that serve individuals well throughout their lives. When we allow children to experience joy in problem solving, when we allow them to follow their curiosity, and when we engage them in talking about these forces and activities, we are establishing cognitive habits that will benefit them for their entire lifetime.

Children rely on direct physical experience to gain knowledge of the world and everything in it, including themselves. Children, in particular those under age eight, are not primarily verbal beings. Their learning is as much based in lived experience as it is in lessons from parents, teachers, other elders, and older siblings and peers.  This is one crucially important benefit of free exploration where children figure out things for themselves. Denied freedom in these experiences, they may become less likely to engage in such approaches when they seek increased understanding in later years.  They can become more passive recipients of knowledge, and this tends to stunt cognitive growth. Beginning with free play in their early years, children develop skills of observation, directed curiosity, the pleasure of mastery, and approaches to problem solving, along with a range of emotional and social skills.

Child’s play is fun and also an essential foundation to social, emotional, and cognitive development. In addition to increasing knowledge and skills, play lets children develop a new and increasingly complex understanding of the self and the environment. Freedom to play in a safe environment made you smarter.    

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