This month our executive director, Stephanie Garst, has had a few opportunities to share the importance of play with teens.
As a guest for the Clemson University Summer Scholars program on “Environmental Sustainability through Parks and Recreation,” Stephanie spent the morning with high schoolers from South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia and even New York. They trekked to two local parks near campus to learn about the importance of play as a valuable and necessary part of a healthy and productive life, including its role in obesity prevention, education, and promoting connections with the environment. Tying in parks as areas for play, the students played childhood games and explored the playground, reflected on their respective childhood play experiences, worked with each other to invent and play new games, and discussed why PLAY is important in their lives.
Stephanie also welcomed over 100 South Carolina 4H leaders to Clemson University for their 2015 State Congress. She led them in a rousing version of Boom Chicka Boom, facilitated this epic game of RoShamBo Rock Star and challenged them to bring PLAY into the work they do for 4H.
by Kent Callison, Director of Marketing Communications, GameTime
“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” – George Bernard Shaw
This is one of my favorite quotes. I wield it as my enlightened metaphor anytime I encourage adults to throw off their self-imposed cloak of mirthless responsibility, if only for a few moments, and recover a glimpse of their childhood, and I remind them that play is not reserved for those with fewer than 16 candles on their birthday cake.
Nearly a century after George Bernard Shaw wrote those words, scientists are discovering they may be more than metaphor. In fact, there is mounting evidence that play can promote neurogenesis and reverse some of the effects of aging in the human brain.
What is Neurogenesis?
Neurons are nerve cells that act as the raw materials of the human brain. During fetal development, these neurons migrate to different areas and become the parts of the brain that control basic human function such as breathing, hearing and smelling. They also make up the more advanced centers of the brain that control complex thought and regulate emotions. Until recently, scientists believed that neurogenesis, the creation of neurons, ceased at birth. This theory proposed that we were born with over 100 billion neurons and those were all we had to work with for our entire lives. Numerous health and environmental factors destroy brain cells as we age and so we are left with a theoretical hourglass in which neurons are the sand falling from one end to the other. When all of the neurons have slipped away, so do we.
It turns out there might be more to this story than a grisly and inevitable end. Studies since the 1960s in adult animals have been able to show evidence of neurogenesis when subjects were exposed to enriched environments, including instances of exercise and/or play. Skeptics have argued that there is not enough evidence to support neurogenesis in adult humans, but a new study appears to provide thorough information on the extent of adult neurogenesis and confirms the role of play and other environmental enrichments in neural development.
Neurons Go Nuclear
In the 1940s and 1950s, above ground nuclear testing caused an elevation of the Carbon-14 isotope (14C) in the atmosphere. 14C is taken up by plants and by animals that eat plants. It is therefore present in humans at a cellular level. The presence of 14C in the brain acts as a time stamp on every new-born brain cell. When levels of 14C are compared to the levels of Carbon-12 isotope in the human brain, which is stable and more abundant, scientists can measure the age of brain cells. This study performed such a measurement on the post mortem brains of 55 men and women between the ages of 19 and 92.
According to the study, nearly 1/3 of the neurons in the brain are regularly renewed throughout life, or approximately 1,400 new neurons per day. This “neural turnover” may enhance the function of the human brain, help regulate mood, and improve cognitive reasoning by maintaining a steady supply of younger neurons (Spalding et al 2013).
Drinking from the Fountain of Youth
Now that adult neurogenesis has been confirmed, you might be wondering how you can start the process in your own brain. What medicine or procedure can we employ to jumpstart the neural engines? It turns out George Bernard Shaw wrote that prescription decades ago: Play.
In 2008, Dr. Stuart Brown gave a talk on the importance of play. The nonprofit group TED, which hosts conferences around the world to spread new ideas and promote intellectual discovery, shared a video of Dr. Brown’s talk on their website where it has been translated into 24 languages and viewed nearly a million times. In his talk, Dr. Brown discusses how play, in all its forms, improves the cognitive function of the brain, improves contextual memory development and enhances our ability to explore and discover new things (Brown 2008).
Dr. Brown is not alone in his views on play and its essential role in our biological development.
One of the earliest and most exciting studies ever published regarding the effects of play on the brain was conducted by Marian Diamond in 1964 on laboratory rats. Diamond divided the rats into two groups. One group was raised in solitary confinement without any outside stimulation. The other group was raised in a colony filled with toys and playful activities. The former group had smaller brains and thinner cerebral cortices. The latter group had larger brains and exhibited higher intelligence, finding their way through mazes much more quickly (Diamond et al 1964). Further analysis of the same study showed that rats who were allowed to play had increased levels of brain-derived neutrophic factor (BDNF) in their brains. BDNF is essential for the growth and maintenance of neuron development (Gordon et al 2003). Although the study was limited to rats, ethical considerations prevented a similar study on humans, The 2013 Spalding study suggests it is very likely that play effects human brains in much the same way.
Other studies on human subjects reveal that children pay more attention in school after a period of unstructured free play (Pelligrini & Holmes, 2006) and that children who are allowed unstructured play with blocks performed better on divergent problem-solving and were more creative in their approach (Pepler & Ross 1981).
Play Isn’t Just an Appointment on Your Calendar
In our society, it isn’t uncommon for a person’s entire day to be condensed into a series of appointments on a calendar announced every quarter hour by a digital alarm emitted from a smart phone. Because we are so conditioned to set aside time for important meetings, doctor appointments and children’s dance recitals, it is understandable that your first reaction is to find a slot somewhere in your day to squeeze in a round of golf or a pickup basketball game. This is a good start, but it’s not enough.
Play is valuable, and any amount of play will be beneficial. But the benefits of play expand by orders of magnitude when play is a natural part of your everyday life. Infusing a playful mindset into your work can improve your problem-solving skills and social cohesion. People who have a rich play history are sought by leading corporations who understand that “tinkerers” are better equipped to resolve conflict, work as part of a team and perform complex tasks than candidates who have been play deprived (Brown 2008).
Incorporating playful activities into family life can reduce stress and enhance the dynamic of your collective and individual relationships. Children who are encouraged to play perform better in school. Parents who play are better equipped to manage tension, and there is evidence linking neurogenesis to a reduction in depression (Eisch & Petrik 2012) – a condition that affects over 120 million people and has an impact on the quality of life for those affected, as well as their entire family.
While there is still more research to be done, it appears that play represents a biological necessity, as important as sleep and exercise, that enhances the human condition and promotes neurogenesis and it’s positive impact on the human brain. By adopting a playful mindset and finding ways to infuse play into our everyday existence, we are enhancing our lives today and possibly prolonging them for years to come.
Dynamics of Hippocampal Neurogenesis in Adult Humans, Kirsty L. Spalding, Olaf Bergmann, Kanar Alkass, Samuel Bernard, Mehran Salehpour, Hagen B. Huttner, Emil Boström, Isabelle Westerlund, Céline Vial, Bruce A. Buchholz, Göran Possnert, Deborah C. Mash, Henrik Druid, Jonas Frisén, Cell – 6 June 2013 (Vol. 153, Issue 6, pp. 1219-1227)
by Blair Barrows, M.Ed Candidate, Special Education
Peabody College of Vanderbilt University
As a college student studying education, I loved learning about educational methods or theories. My first introduction to the world of educational philosophies was through my mother, a teacher at a Reggio Emilia inspired pre-school. I was intrigued by the free flowing nature of the philosophy and the child-driven learning strategies that it offered. The interest peaked my research into different growing educational philosophies, such as Waldorf or Montessori, which encompassed similar ideals. Examining them together, I realized they all shared one common idea—children learn through play. At first, I had a “duh” moment, thinking, of course children learn through play. It was not a revolutionary idea that I had come across and I assumed that many people shared this belief. However, when I began to reflect on my own educational experiences, I saw that play and education were completely separated. I knew that play was important, but I could not understand why it never intersected with my schooling past the age of 5. Why was play being pushed out of the classroom?
Around the same time of my personal educational reflection, I had the opportunity to apply for a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, a one-year grant for independent study outside of the United States. I designed a proposal around exploring what it would be like to be in a classroom that utilized play as a learning tool and believed in its importance. Six months later, I found out that I had been granted a Fellowship and that summer I set out to explore the world of play in South Africa, the UK, Finland, Italy, Germany, India, and New Zealand. At the time, I had no idea how much I would learn about the global play world and the trend of risk.
Although I knew that the concept of the “bubble wrapped child” was growing in the U.S., I did not realize how much we do not let our children do until I was living in other countries. While exploring Waldorf, Montessori, Reggio Emilia, Environmental, and Holistic education, I saw children, as young as three years-old, using knives, carving wood, manning a saw, climbing trees on school property, getting rough in sports, and playing freely in and outside of the classroom at school. Giving children the opportunity to engage in self-driven free play meant that the children would possibly encounter risky situations, such as the ones listed above. In the eyes of the schools, allowing children to experience risk helped the children to become better analysts of potential risky situations. For example, if a child is taught how to use a pocketknife correctly at an early age, then he/she is less likely to use one recklessly later in life. In many of the schools that I worked with, the teachers, administration, and parents were confident with the decision to let children experience risk because they understood the rewards. Schools that embodied free play also embraced the chances of risk. Reflecting on educational and play trends in the U.S., I began to realize that play was being removed from schools because play and risk had become associated.
When I was not in a classroom, I learned about local organizations that supported play, play advocates, and government initiatives to create more play opportunities. These organizations and personnel understood that the words “risk” and “play” were becoming synonymous and they wanted to work to change parents’ and school’s opinions otherwise. One particular movement that I fell in love with were Adventure Playgrounds. Adventure Playgrounds, which have been around for a number of decades, capture the pure essence of free play because they allow children to literally create their own play environment using the loose pieces around the playground. I used the word “literally” because often, these playgrounds would allow children to build, on-site, their own structure with nails, hammers, and wood. I observed children grinning with joy as they described their latest development to their fort, relay race they organized, or game that they created. And despite popular belief, each playground organization that I interviewed said that they hardly had any incidences of serious injuries, which they attributed to both their education on construction equipment that they give to playground attendees and that children who spend time at the playground know how to assess potentially risky situations. Children who come to the playgrounds understand the importance of safety when working with construction materials and navigating construction sites. Although a few Adventure Playgrounds exist in the U.S., I fear that the movement may never grow because people would not be able to see past the potential risks associated with them. However, if citizens were able to look past the risk, they would see what I saw—happy and confident children.
The last country that I traveled to was New Zealand and unfortunately, I saw just how much the global trend of risk had affected a country that prided itself on being a “barefoot culture” and popular extreme sports destination. I interviewed a local play advocate who explained to me exactly how much risk had begun to make a home in NZ. At the time of my interview, July 2013, NZ did not have what he referred to as a “suing problem” because it was illegal to sue someone over an incident such as falling on a playground, and therefore, disputes were handled much more on a personal level. This lack of litigation allowed free play to thrive and parents to let their children be involved in rough play at home and at school. However, he told me that NZ was beginning to change their policies, despite the fact that they did not need to. When I asked why the policies were changing, he told me that NZ was changing them in order to fit in with the global trend of risk and that they felt pressure from other countries to conform. Schools were tightening down on which games were allowed at recess, parents were supervising their children more, and the “barefoot culture” was being exchanged for a more rigid educational structure. Our conversation showed me just how much the fear of encountering potential risky situations had crept into international policy. When a country without a needless lawsuit problem was succumbing to the social pressures of limiting risk, and thus free play, had the idea of the “bubble wrapped child” gotten out of hand?
Originally, I set out to exclusively explore the relationship between play and education; however, on my journey I discovered so much more about the world of play than I could have imagined. Although ideally, children’s play opportunities should extend beyond the walls of the classroom, schools are cutting out programs left and right. Now that children are seeking play elsewhere, parents and communities are becoming concerned that their play may be too risky. Many play advocates and researchers that I interviewed agreed that in the long run, we are harming our children because we are keeping them from encountering risk. I believe that through experiencing risk, children will become better risk analysts, thus lowering the chances that they will injure themselves. In order to create a generation of children who can appropriately analyze risk for themselves, without adult intervention, risk and play must no longer be synonymous and children should be given more chances to play freely. Through changing the perceptions of what risk and play mean, I believe that more play opportunities can return to schools, streets, backyards, and playgrounds.
Children of all ages benefit from play, especially those five years of age and under. Yet societal pressures driven toward academic achievement have stripped away many of the meaningful play experiences for preschoolers. And we aren’t the only ones taking notice. In recent months, early childhood education has been making headlines around the country. From New York City’s move to universal pre-k to parents protesting the removal of recess, what is and isn’t happening during the school day is a major concern among parents and educators.
In 2015, much of the curriculum driving early childhood programs is intentional in nature and directed by adults, marginalizing play as a nice to have luxury. However, play offers an educational way of exploring the world and preschoolers benefit. Research proves this time and time again. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, play has a crucial role in the optimal growth, learning, and development of children from infancy through adolescence.
While the number of studies validating play as an essential part of early childhood development is up, the average amount of time actually spent playing outside is dramatically down. Just 30 years ago, 40 percent of a typical day in preschool was devoted to child-initiated play, compared with 25 percent today. Another study by the Seattle Children’s Research found that nearly half of preschoolers in a sample representing four million U.S. children did not have even one adult-supervised outdoor play opportunity per day. The depletion of play in young children has reached epidemic proportions.
It’s worth stating again that play is not a luxury, it’s a necessity for preschoolers. Research proves it. Many leading educators support it. We need to stand up for play for those just learning to stand on their own. Through play, physical, social and sensory skills are fostered. It’s how preschoolers experience the world.
It’s time to make play a fundamental building block to early childhood education. How are you working to save play for young children?
Elements of PLAY in American History: Did you know? The average American was introduced to the concept of kindergarten at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition and World’s Fair in Philadelphia?
By Guest Blogger Stacey Swigart, Curator, Please Touch Museum
“Play is the highest expression of human development in childhood, for it alone is the free expression of what is in a child’s soul.” -Friedrich Froebel
The Women’s Committee of the Centennial sponsored the kindergarten and wanted to introduce people to the concepts that had been developed by Friedrich Wilhelm Froebel (1782-1852) in Germany. Froebel’s ideas centered around three forms of learning including knowledge of forms of life (gardening, caring for animals, domestic tasks); knowledge of forms of beauty (design, color, movement, shape, harmonies); and knowledge of forms of mathematics (geometric forms/relationships). A trained teacher provided the guidance for children’s play through special materials, called ‘gifts.’ The gifts were wooden blocks, geometric shapes, balls of yarn and other to facilitate play and learning. Additionally, there were ‘occupations’ –handwork that was part of the kindergarten curriculum including beading, threading, folding, molding and embroidery.
In 1876 in Philadelphia, a small cottage was constructed dedicated to the Froebel system of education. The Kindergarten building was situated a few yards northeast of the Women’s Pavilion. It was a one-story Gothic style cottage that was thirty-five feet high by eighteen feet wide, built of pine and polished and varnished to a “fine hue”. Inside, the building consisted of a main hall, with an alcove for spectators.
Sixteen (some sources say eighteen) children from the Northern Home for Friendless Children in Philadelphia were brought every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday from 10:00 AM to 12:30 PM to demonstrate the operations of a Froebel Classroom.
James D. McCabe wrote in The Illustrated History of the Centennial Exhibition, “The teacher was a lady from Boston, and the class composed of sixteen bright little ones…A more delightful sight than these happy children at their studious play can scarcely be imagined. The advantages of the Kindergarten are so well known that it would be useless to dwell upon them here.”
The central idea of the kindergarten (‘children’s garden”) was to provide a large, well-ventilated, well-lighted and pleasant space for learning that would open to a garden and play area. The garden would incorporate small garden plots that the children could cultivate on their own—flowers, useful vegetables, and even trees. Froebel did not use corporal punishment, but rather exclusion from play or gardening.
In 1876, there were a few Froebel classrooms to be found in major cities. The numbers increased post-1876. There are a number of educational institutions and programs focusing on the theories and ideas of Friedrich Froebel around the globe today.
Friedrich Froebel introduced his method of teaching to young children (primarily ages 3-6) in Germany in 1837.
The Northern Home for Friendless Children was founded in 1853 and still exists today as Northern Children’s Services. Learn more at: www.northernchildren.org
Miss Ruth R. Burritt of Boston was the teacher.
Furniture and material for the school were contributed by a Mr. Steiger of New York.
$1,500 was raised for the construction of the cottage by the Rhode Island committee of the Women’s Centennial group.
A woman by the name of Anna Lloyd Wright visited the Fair, saw the Kindergarten and bought some ‘gifts’ for her son. That son was future architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. The son of Frank Lloyd Wright would go on to be the inventor of Lincoln Logs!
Milton Bradley (of toy fame) began producing “gifts” for resale in the 19th century.
By Greg Harrison, creative director, Playworld Systems, Inc.
Bronze Sponsor of the 2015 Conference on the Value of Play
Today’s kids get 50% less unstructured outdoor playtime than those in the 1970s. Trends driving this shift include the over-scheduling of kids’ lives, security concerns and screen time. Without play, children’s cognitive development and socialization suffer.
At Playworld Systems, it’s our goal to save unstructured outdoor play. Kids have limited time for free play so we must value and make the most of it. Play promotes spiritual development and reduces stress, and obesity. It also unites and strengthens our sense of community.
As a leading manufacturer of playground equipment, our vision is to reinvent unstructured outdoor play. We hope you’ll join our mission to #SavePlay. Check out our Save Play video.
Bronze Sponsor of the 2015 Conference on the Value of Play
Play comes naturally to children in the primary grades, but as students mature, attitudes toward the type of play they formerly enjoyed begin to change.
Nowhere is this more evident than when comparing a middle school campus with that of an elementary school campus. Gone are the swing sets, the slides, the jungle gyms – replaced by sports fields used only by athletically-inclined students. Gone, also, is much of the spontaneous physical activity that keeps younger children so healthy. For the students who do not go out for sports, enticements to physical activity suddenly become very few.
Educators face a challenge with the middle and high school set: How to encourage the same type of playful activity in youths who have moved beyond the playground?
Schools across the country have turned to outdoor fitness equipment in recent years. The structures, in some ways reminiscent of playground equipment, encourage playful activity in older children in a social environment that makes fitness fun. Schools typically employ the exercise units during PE classes, but also make them available to the students before and after school and during breaks.
Terrace Community Middle School in Thonotosassa, Florida employs its outdoor gym for PE classes, a practice that teacher Vivian Canaday says has been a great option for the students.
“It makes it enjoyable for them. They don’t realize that they are … getting some exercise because they are actually having fun,” she says.
A high percentage of students lack the upper body strength to do exercises on static units, such as pull-up bars. Therefore, to meet students on their level, schools have found body weight leverage resistance units as an effective alternative. Canaday says this type of equipment allows every student, regardless of fitness level, the opportunity to participate successfully.
A wide variety of equipment allows for not only upper body exercises, but also includes activities to strengthen the core and lower body, increase cardiovascular health, and provide for stretching. Students participate in groups – and many exercise units allow for several students to use them at one time. In this way, the exercise incorporates more of a playful element, giving students additional motivation.
“They challenge each other to see who can go longer on some of the equipment. It gives them a whole new view of different fitness activities,” she says.
Schools incorporating outdoor fitness equipment on their campuses often choose to extend the benefits to the greater community as well by designating the zones as joint-use areas. As a result, the benefits of playful fitness are extended to not only the students, but to adults as well – who often are in just as great, if not greater, need for physical activity, and who may not be able to afford gym memberships.
Palomares Academy in Pomona, California is one such example. A joint project between the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health and the Pomona Unified School District, the fitness zone of 16 units allows for at least 28 students to participate in fitness activities during PE classes – and it also provides a fantastic opportunity for families in the area to enjoy exercise together after school hours.
By combining play with fitness, this unique concept has been gaining popularity nationwide and proving that play is a key to fitness not just for young children, but for teens, adults and beyond.