The Importance of Play

We can all appreciate the value of playing simply from an enjoyment perspective. Most kids count the minutes until recess, after school, the weekend, play dates; any opportunity to get out there and practice some free play with little to no structure. We know they enjoy it, possibly (hopefully) even enjoy it ourselves from time to time, but do we fully appreciate how important free play is and how useful it can be as an intervention? Probably not. Thankfully, play is having a sort of renaissance after decades of implementation of more structured learning models for kids starting from a very young age. While kids benefit from the structure of preschool, elementary school and so on, they also clearly benefit from having regular free time, both alone and with their peers to just experiment, play, interact with their surroundings, and allow their imagination to take over and guide their freestyle play. While physical activity is clearly good for all of us for a variety of reasons, open play is something entirely different.

Free, unstructured play happens when your child isn’t following any rules or guidelines, like when they are busy building forts, finger painting, or engaged in role play. It helps to cultivate independence, imagination, creativity, and problem-solving skills. It can also help them deal with stress and anxiety and play therapy has become an effective tool for therapists to use with their young population. From a neuroscience perspective, free play is fundamental to every type of learning and it physically changes the shape of the brain, forming neural pathways that change the brain globally, affecting both the sensory and motor cortex.

Neuroplasticity is the ability of neural networks in the brain to change through growth and reorganization. These changes range from individual neuron pathways making new connections, to systematic adjustments like cortical remapping. There are two main types of neuroplasticity: structural, where the brain is able to change its physical structure in response to learning, and functional, where it moves functions from a damaged area to an undamaged area. Typically, our potential for neuroplasticity is greatest when we are younger, as seen in babies who learn how to crawl or walk so quickly, or a toddler who can become fluent in another language. These types of skills are gained through the use of free, unstructured play and exposure to new things coupled with the remarkable neuroplasticity of their young brains.

It is very easy to give babies and toddlers unstructured play time because really, it’s all they do other than eat and sleep but as they get older we tend to try to create more of a structure through school, sports, family activities, etc., which are all beneficial but sometimes we forget to simply include letting them just play independently, either by themselves or with a sibling/friends, and have no structure or distraction. The same is true for adults. We try to have so much structure and/or are constantly stimulated by our devices that it doesn’t allow us to experience free play. Thankfully there are a lot of little ones around that we can get on the floor with and participate in some physical or sensory free play time.

Neuroplasticity does tend to decline as we become adults and age but it doesn’t end. Historically (even as recently as when I was going through my training), we believed that once neurons die, they don’t get replaced and that the brain cannot grow and change once we have reached early adulthood. Part of this belief came from the observation that most people who suffered significant brain trauma were unable to recover but more recent studies have demonstrated that the brain is able to rewire itself following damage and that it continues to create new neural pathways and alter existing ones in order to adapt to new experiences, learn new information, and create new memories. This has been an exciting finding because it has opened the door to new therapy options for people who have suffered from a stroke or traumatic brain injury as well as those suffering with dementia. In patients suffering from dementia, play therapy can help to maintain their skills, elevate mood, enhance their sense of peace, improve sleep, optimize their adaptive functioning, and decrease some of the adverse behavioural features of dementia.

While clearly there is much more that has been uncovered than the scope of what one article could include around the utility of play for people of all ages and how it relates to brain elasticity and there is certainly even more yet to be uncovered, it is clear that true unstructured, independent, and free play benefits people of all ages. Beyond that, it is just freeing to let yourself be uninhibited and dance freely, paint without an attachment to the outcome, and crawl around on the floor with your baby. We are all so busy with our lives and we tend to put the same pressure on our kids to be “busy” so as we move into another school year, try to schedule some regular “free play” time for your family and see what comes of it.

Stay safe and stay cool!