Guest Column - July 2012
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The Value of Play
Developing Meaningful Play Opportunities Through Research

By Anne-Marie Spencer

When we consider the inherent value of play, our thoughts generally turn to the benefits gained by movement: burning calories, developing strength, and obtaining cardiovascular benefits. However, current research in established and emerging play science disciplines shows it delivers much more, to the point where play must be considered as much a valuable component of childhood as any subjects learned in school.

In the recently published treatise "Words on Play," a series of contributions by many of today's top play scholars outlines a set of widely diverse benefits, from social capital to overall brain development. We know play is dynamic and active, but providing ample opportunities to engage in meaningful play experiences also affords children the ability to connect with the natural world, forge friendships, build social skills, and create a healthy life balance that allows them to be passionate, creative contributors to society.

Lev Vygotsky stated in 1978 that "Play contains all developmental tendencies, and is itself a major source of development, children are at their highest level of development when they are at play." Dr. Joe Frost, Ed.D., Professor Emeritus at the University of Texas expanded the statement in "Words on Play": "Play contributes to academic learning, sharpens fitness, elevates mood and memory, lowers stress, helps prevent disease, and promotes physical and mental health and healing that are evident across the lifespan." Indeed, play coupled with a healthy diet throughout life leads to longer, more enjoyable lives with improved balance and flexibility, as opposed to the limited mobility experienced by adults who practice a sedentary lifestyle.

Healthy human development can also be linked to a strong relationship with nature. According to environmental scientist Francis Ming Kuo, outdoor play and informal learning in nature can now be seen as crucial to children's preventive health factors and as a self-motivating means of assimilating knowledge about the natural world. Robin Moore, director of the Natural Learning Initiative, College of Design, North Carolina State University, adds that planting pockets in and around a play space can add play value, and that behavior mapping studies from Kids Together Park in Cary, N.C., show that naturalized areas combining nature and manufactured equipment show the highest use by children and families. Moore adds that curving pathways, seating areas, grassy settings and hillside mounds also provide destinations for multigenerational users seeking family-centered experiences.

Perhaps one of the most interesting areas of play research is in the arena of brain development. Dr. Stuart Brown, in his contribution to the treatise, states that the explosion of shared information from our neuroscience community that is flowing into Internet- and university-based databases is beginning to deepen and alter the brain science view of play behavior in exciting new perspectives. Data and research clearly demonstrates how play depravation can affect the ability to manage stress, achieve social norms and regulate emotion. Animal play researchers have discovered that the origins of play behavior stem from the deepest survival centers of mammal brainstem and limbic systems, similar to survival instincts that foster sleep, dreams and fundamental caretaking. With the current research taking place on the science of play, it is an exciting time for this emerging discipline.