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Why is play good for kids?

Exercise enhances learning.

A study conducted at the Mashhad University of Medical Sciences compared the combined effects of an enriched environment and daily exercise to the practice of either independently. As it turns out, having a great learning environment is not enough. Exercise is necessary for brain growth.

But children don't exercise, do they? Have you ever tried to convince your child to join you on your daily run? It's like pulling teeth! Young children get their exercise through vigorous play. Chase, wrestling, and tag are how children get their hearts pumping, and if you let them, they will rough and tumble all day long.

The researchers at Mashhad looked closely at the expression of nestin in the hippocampus because nestin is a protein marker for neural stem cells and the hippocampus plays a large roll in creating long term memories. Want to help your child succeed? Sprinkle opportunities for free, vigorous play throughout every day and keep their environment full of interesting things to learn.

(Listen closely to the background and you can hear the joy! The children come and go throughout the day. They wrestle and play whenever their bodies need to wiggle. Then they interact with the learning materials around them. This combination between free, vigorous play and an engaging environment is the sweet spot we are looking for.)

Active play strengthens our bones.

The science-

The data collected and reviewed in this comprehensive paper on bone health is summed up quite nicely in the title, "Physical Activity in Childhood May Be the Key to Optimizing Lifespan Skeletal Health".

Anyone who has taken a turn "rough and tumbling" with their children is aware of the cardiovascular benefits of vigorous play, but it is only since the turn of the century (I can't believe I am using that expression to apply to a time period I lived through!) that scientists have begun to understand that play supports bone density throughout life.

Unfortunately not all play is created equal-

"Physical activities shown to have the greatest osteogenic effects on the growing skeleton are those characterized by a considerable loading magnitude applied at a rapid rate. Greater forces, delivered quickly, through activities such as jumping, appear to convey the greatest benefits to bone mineralization and structure in children and adolescents."

In simple terms, the very activities that give parents grey hairs are the ones that strengthen bones best. It is one of those Catch 22 conundrums. The very jumps that might break their ankles are the jumps that strengthen the bones in their ankles. The goal with this play is to stay just this side of the emergency room. (Use your common sense here folks. Don't come at me with a lawsuit because you got the impression I just gave your kid permission to jump off the roof!)

We are hardwired for play.

The science-

Thanks to the work of Jaak Panksepp, we now have a solid appreciation for our emotional brains.

Emotions are difficult for scientists. They are subjective and frequently dependent upon self reporting, a notoriously complicated mode of collecting data. The behaviorists of the early and mid 20th century scoffed at the idea of using such inexact material as data, and rightly so! Even though I experience fear, and you experience fear, how could we possibly come to a precise and workable definition of the term using only our subjective experiences?

And so the behaviorists concerned themself with the behavior fear produces. Unfortunately, in doing so they were severely handicapped. Emotions are such a driving force behind behavior that we can not neglect them and "get the whole picture".

Luckily Panksepp arrived on the scene during the technological boom that allowed us unprecedented access into the inner workings of the mind. Panksepp spent his career pursuing (and coining) affective neuroscience- the study of the neural mechanisms of emotion.

What Panksepp's research has given us is an appreciation for the evolutionary advantage inherent in emotions. He successfully mapped seven different basic emotions in the brain, and each one carries a gift for survival. These emotions are seeking, rage, fear, lust, panic, care and play. Seeking (enthusiamsm) and lust prompt us to search out those things necessary for survival and procreation. Rage motivates us to preserve the stability and resources we have. Fear helps us make wise choices. It is easy to find evidence supporting the evolutionary advantages of these four emotions.

Care (maternal nurturance), panic (loneliness, grief, separation anxiety), and play are best contemplated within the framework of our social natures. We are born completely dependent and so our immediate family's care and panic systems are essential for our survival. Again, the relationship between these emotions and survival is not difficult to observe. We need our families, and so we have motivating emotions that keep us bonded.

But play? Why do we have play circuitry? Isn't play all fun and games? Why do our brains treat play with the same seriousness as lust and fear and maternal care? Neuroscientists have been working on answering these questions ever since, and the more we look, the more we find.

Analyzing the work done by neuroscientists since Jaak Panksepp, a case could be made that our play pathways are our most important pathways. It is with play that we practice the very skills necessary to successfully act on all other emotions as adults. With play we bond, develop empathy, learn social limits, and integrate extremities of personality that might otherwise prove maladaptive. Moreover, playmates only participate when willing. This makes play the ultimate democratic activity, and as such, play provides a model for social structures built upon freedom and appreciation for the humanity of the other.

A final thought.

Humanity is a few million years old.

Our play circuitry is inherited. It is even older-nested into the ancient portions of our brain.

Through play we socialize, mature our emotional regulation, enhance our health, and build our brains and our bones.

Perhaps one day child's play can be honored. Perhaps one day the expression "child's play" will come to mean "that which does it all, joyfully". Until then...

I hope our journey inspires your own,

Buckets & Berries


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