It is undeniable that children love to play and every child around the world is born with a strong instinct to do so. True play is spontaneous and comes from within the child. It can take many different forms; sometimes it is solitary but often takes place in groups and sometimes it involves real or imaginary toys. It brings huge joy to children of all ages but it is never truly playful unless a child is free to join or leave the activity, or if the play is directed by an adult.
Children are not the only youngsters to play. Most mammals and even some birds have the same instinct and need. Frolicking puppies and kittens may spring to mind most readily but it is also known that the young of meerkats, lions, ravens, coyotes, elephants and even rats have strong instincts to play. When such a diverse range of creatures all have a need to play there must surely be a strong evolutionary reason for it.
Play is a very powerful tool with which children can learn and the fact that children find play so pleasurable suggests that it is vitally important. After the age of puberty, when childish play diminishes, we are introduced to sexual activity, which is instinctive, extremely pleasurable and utterly vital to the survival of the species. Before the age of puberty, we have play which is also instinctive and very pleasurable, which suggests that from an evolutionary point of view it is vital and far more important than mere childish amusement.
Dr Jan Panksepp, a neuroscientist who specializes in play, points out that the physical structure of our brain shows clear evidence of three evolutionary layers. The oldest segments of the brain, which are shared by most animals, produce our instincts and emotions. These basic feelings and actions happen without conscious thought and, when they occur in a young brain, they create new links and pathways to the next layer. This second level of brain development involves learning and memory. The desire to play, for example, is a basic, instinctive process while the playing of games is a secondary process because games have structure and therefore need memory.
Many creatures have the first two layers of brain structure but highly developed animals, like ourselves, have a third layer which is found in the neo-cortex. The memories in the second layer create links and pathways to the third layer, which is where the more complicated processes of thought, imagination and planning occur. Therefore, how we control our basic instinctive behaviour is dependent upon the type of links we create between our instincts and memories and between our memories and new thoughts.
Play is necessary because the brain of a young child is not, as thought by many people, a small version of an adult brain that simply needs to be filled with information. It has all the structures of an adult brain but it does not have the connections and pathways that it needs to function as a successful adult. Play creates the brain pathways which allow us to control our basic emotions. Play provides the input for young brains to develop the most important skills in life, like creativity, empathy, intuition, imagination, consideration, bravery and calmness; all the essential things that cannot be taught in school lessons.
It is a huge mistake for parents to restrict the physical, rough and tumble play of their children in the belief that they are keeping them ‘safe from harm’. Encouraging children to play quietly indoors may well prevent them from grazing their knees but it also prevents the natural process of healthy brain development. Children need to play with other children so they can learn social interaction and empathy for others. Curtailing this evolutionary process will mean your children grow up with no scars on their knees but, also, no ability to form meaningful relationships as an adult and no concept of seeing the other person’s point of view.