It’s essential for brain development

Young animals (and humans) have played for tens of thousands of years. It is important for diverse growth of the brain, and most likely helped their species survive challenges of evolution.

Neuroscientists use MRI and other technologies to produce images from inside the brain, so they can follow changes over several years. Their consensus? PLAY activities increase the stimulus for brain growth, for “fine-tuning,” exploration and creativity. And this includes adolescent development into the early 20s.

Two readable, but well-researched reviews are a good start: 1) Gwen Dewar, PhD: 2) Jay Giedd, MD:

New technology confirms what coaches and parents have known forever in youth sports. Athletes are most passionate – and learn more – from fun scrimmage activities. But it’s not just about fun and it’s not just human. Observe the play activities of young animals – wolves, bears, lions, even penguins.

Something in our genetic makeup (humans and animals alike) has always driven “kids” to PLAY. The more unstructured, the less fear of failure, the less coaching and emphasis on results (scoreboard or standardized test results), the more it is a cooperative project of childhood friends – the more stimulus for neurological development.

We have known for a long time that great learning takes place in the first three years of life. But MRI studies have shown that around puberty there is a second period of rapid nerve growth in the brain. This is followed immediately by “pruning” away nerves that are not used much, and augmenting those that are active. This is especially true in the cerebellum, the lower center in the brain that fine-tunes movement as well as decision-making.

This means that if a child (early adolescent) plays a sport or a piano – or both – lies on a couch or runs distances, the years before and after 11 for girls (12 for boys) are extremely important. Therefore, coaches in youth and high school sports have the most important job of all, even though coaches in the NHL earn bigger paychecks.

We must learn how to insert decision-making into the elementary stages of skill-development, so the skill is learned in an unpredictable context. We must include play activities at all ages, and competitive (but low stakes) scrimmages when appropriate. The current high school rule limiting scrimmages is counterproductive – an example of administrative over-reach that defies science and coaches’ recommendations.

It is not easy for a teacher or coach to turn the learning process over to players at times, and let the chaos gradually become brilliance. It seems too gradual, but we can’t let our impatience get in the way of exploration that eventually turns into creative genius.

Most importantly, having fun is wonderful, but because it stimulates the growth of young brains, it’s beyond wonderful – it’s critical.