A New School Year of Learning and Play

Written by Dr. Stuart Brown, NMC/GSPI Key Strategist

The Nevada Medical Center is committed to improving the overall health and well-being of Las Vegas and Nevada residents. As the NMC Healthcare Report Card revealed, mental health among Nevada’s children remains a critical concern. As such, NMC is dedicated to demonstrate how play contributes to the development of healthy and happy children.

A very broad look at the science of play behavior shows it to be a fundamental aspect of all mammals. Animal play scientists have objectively demonstrated its foundational importance in early developmental times for the presence of later resilience and overall species competency. Humans share the essential brain design and neurotransmitters with these playful animals, and also, despite our very large and uniquely intricate brains and language, nonetheless we show patterns of play similar to many of our animal cousins. These play-based scientists have also shown that the brain wiring that fosters play behavior is located in areas of the brain stem that also house survival circuits such as those that prompt sleep and dreams, the immune system, and other essential survival drives. So play, though it is not generally viewed as a survival drive has evolved millions of years of trial and error and is present in increasing amounts the more intelligent the animal.

Worldwide, when children are provided with appropriate “play spaces” they will self-organize prompted by their “play instinct” and use their natural exuberance to better learn who they are, and what their limited world consists of.  These complex components of a future healthy self are primarily experienced through their own play drive. Sure, they need adult oversight and protection, but traditional societies, and the remnants of our hunter-gatherer million-year-past still functioning at present in pockets, reveal that for preschool age infants and children, PLAY EQUALS LEARNING. This applies today in the most sophisticated US settings as well. This means that insistent adult supervision is not necessary for the play=learning to take place. This principle applies to keep self-organized kid play available in age appropriate settings throughout infancy, preschool, and certainly THE elementary school years. As adults, we often forget that the imaginary life of kids dominates their inner growing narratives, and that the trial and error playground experiences and the growing capacity of these play settings provide key life competency learning to happen. Miss it, and a necessary element of becoming fully human is also missed.

What educators are learning to appreciate now, with solid data reinforcing this with objective data, is that time spent in self-organized play provides learning that classroom or adult organized pedantry cannot offer.  Self-reliance and the ability to control impulsivity as a result of preschool play has been demonstrated in numerous settings. Increased elementary school recess time, as in Finland, settings in Georgia, and other sites has been shown to be correlated with increased long-term academic accomplishment, lessened disciplinary referrals, less health-related days missed, and overall school morale improvement.

The Nevada Medical Center’s Global Science of Play has wisely initiated recess reboot over the past year at local Clark County schools with impressive positive results that mirror the solid long-term data from Finland and a wide variety of selected UK and US positive recess research-backed locations.  As the 2018-19 school year gets underway, it is timely to remind parents, educators, school officials and humans at-large that play matters.  Without it, students lack self-confidence, creativity, expression, problem-solving, team work, and resiliency – all key indicators for learning.  NMC’s Global Science of Play Institute looks forward to continuing its partnership with additional schools for Fall 2018. Here’s to a great school year for all through Play!