While a summer full of too many unproductive or unsupervised hours is a terrible waste for a child, free play is one of the most valuable things we can offer. Running around the park, navigating a slide, shooting hoops on the basketball court, playing jump rope all can take place without adults hovering and interjecting into every incident steals valuable opportunities for learning.
Operation Exodus believes in free play every day. In the summer, we’re able to offer Exodus Summer kids even more chances to grow and learn through free play. From peer-to-peer learning, to negotiation skills, to social adaptability, there are layers and layers of learning that can take place during park time. That doesn’t mean anyone is unsupervised, or unsafe. It’s just that under watchful eyes of tutors and volunteers, Exodus kids are given the space to work things out themselves, and learn valuable lessons in the process.
When it comes to brain development, time in the classroom may be less important than time on the playground. Still, many children in public schools, especially in urban neighborhoods, are getting less and less time outside, despite the documented benefits of free play.
“The experience of play changes the connections of the neurons at the front end of your brain,” says Sergio Pellis, a researcher at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada. “And without play experience, those neurons aren’t changed,” he says. Our friends at MindShift have been looking at the role of play in learning. Play is as much a part of childhood as school and an organic way of learning.
It is those changes in the prefrontal cortex during childhood that help wire up the brain’s executive control center, which has a critical role in regulating emotions, making plans and solving problems, Pellis says. So play, he adds, is what prepares a young brain for life, love and even schoolwork. But to produce this sort of brain development, children need to engage in plenty of so-called free play. No coaches, no umpires, no rule books.
“Whether it’s rough-and-tumble play or two kids deciding to build a sand castle together, the kids themselves have to negotiate, well, what are we going to do in this game? What are the rules we are going to follow?” Pellis says. The brain builds new circuits in the prefrontal cortex to help it navigate these complex social interactions, he says.
Much of what scientists know about this process comes from research on animal species that engage in social play. This includes cats, dogs and most other mammals. But Pellis says he has also seen play in some birds, including young magpies that “grab one another and start wrestling on the ground like they were puppies or dogs.”
For a long time, researchers thought this sort of rough-and-tumble play might be a way for young animals to develop skills like hunting or fighting. But studies in the past decade or so suggest that’s not the case. Adult cats, for example, have no trouble killing a mouse even if they are deprived of play as kittens.