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Free Play Shapes Your Child’s Brain (in a good way!)

Free Play Shapes Your Child’s Brain (in a good way!)

More and more research is showing that free play is critical to a child’s developing brain. More free play might even help your kid get better grades in school.

Here in the U.S., school curricula tend to separate learning time from play time, but there’s a growing body of research showing that free play might be one of the keys to better academic performance.

Kids learn social skills like fairness and how to take turns on the playground. Those skills are actually better predictors of academic performance than past grades. A kid’s social skills in third grade tell you more about how they’ll perform in the eighth grade classroom than their past grades.

Related: Can a yoga ball help kids learn?

According to an NPR interview with Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, free play shapes those developing brains. It even has the potential to turns genes on and off that impact the neocortex. This is part of the brain that’s important for sleep, memory, and for learning.

That means play might be the component of a child’s day where he processes what he learned in the classroom. At the very least, play seems to enhance the part of the brain that helps him learn and retain information.

U.S. schools have been cutting recess time more and more. Instead, our schools tend to focus on classroom time and “teaching the test.” This emerging body of research seems to imply that this strategy is not serving our kids at all.

Free Play Shapes Your Child's Brain (in a good way!)

Better learning isn’t the only benefit that kids pick up during free play. This is a time that also helps kids foster creativity and resilience. The information kids learn in a classroom can be important, but so is learning how to interact with others and learning to think outside of the box. These are the lessons that you can’t put down on a chalkboard.

Related: Is multitasking hurting your creativity?

The Sudbury Valley School is a good example of learning through play in action. In this unconventional learning environment, kids are  part of the decision-making process. They help enforce the rules of the school and shape their days. Instead of a regimented academic calendar, kids engage in free play and play-based learning. Kids also play in mixed age groups, so younger kids learn from watching older kids.

The best part? Sudbury Valley graduates perform well in college and in their careers. This style of learning with an emphasis on free play works. And it helps our kids grow into happy, well-adjusted adults.

So, what’s a parent to do? If your child’s school has cut free play time, you might need to supplement with more playground time after school and on weekends. You can also try to work with school leadership through the PTA to change their free play policies.

What is your child’s school day like? How much emphasis is there on academics vs. free play? I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments!

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Becky Striepe

Becky Striepe is a freelance writer and vegan crafter living in Atlanta, Georgia. Her life’s mission is to make green crafting and vegan food accessible to everyone! Like this article? You can follow Becky on Twitter or find her on Facebook!

34 comments

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4:58AM PDT on Sep 3, 2014

We bought a swing set for our 3 year old grandson, he loves it. We take him to the playground at least once while we have him. We have also taken him to the Children's museum a couple of times too. We make sure he has lots of outside time!

7:16PM PDT on Sep 1, 2014

Kids need to play outside!!!!!

4:19AM PDT on Aug 31, 2014

So sad it has come to this....., that one need an article to learn.... :-( But on the bright side maybe many need this after years of mainstream media telling what to do or not :-)

2:47AM PDT on Aug 29, 2014

So true !

3:41AM PDT on Aug 27, 2014

Learning through games is the most effective

8:37PM PDT on Aug 25, 2014

Thank you :)

8:33PM PDT on Aug 25, 2014

Thanks

6:45PM PDT on Aug 25, 2014

Life gets structured way too soon

3:32PM PDT on Aug 25, 2014

So true...thanks for sharing

2:26PM PDT on Aug 25, 2014

This is not new information. Children do MUCH better when they're given the freedom to move around and play creatively. Research has long proven that the longer kids are cramped up in a classroom (and the earlier they are forced into this situation), the more likely they are to not thrive and to have attention and concentration problems as well as other complications. But instead of seeing this and changing the learning environment, we just dose these kids up on ADHD pills (ADHD is a real condition - however, it's GREATLY over-diagnosed) and send them back into the prison cell-- sorry, classroom.

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