This interview is part of Fatherly’s first annual 25 Best U.S. Cities For Kids to Play Outside. To read the full report, click here.
Dr. J. Alison Bryant is a former senior research director at Nickelodeon and MTV who now heads up PlayScience, which helps everyone from Disney to PBS better understand how kids play. You probably think you’ve thought a lot about ensuring your kid plays in ways that are productive, healthy and fun — Dr. Bryant has thought about it way more.
Explain the role of play in how kid’s develop, and why it’s important.
There’s actual cognitive science about how open play shapes neural pathways. When you take away open play, where kids experiment and learn through trial and error and really focus on a goal and an outcome, the brain develops in certain ways. There was an experiment with rats, where one group played naturally and the other group was kept from playing. The rats that didn’t play were so frightened [by social situations], they wouldn’t come out of their holes and in some cases died. That’s the life-and-death version, but what we’re sacrificing with our kids is, ironically, the kind of learning that actually helps us function in the 21st Century: communication, collaboration, creativity.
How does open play differ from structured play in this sense?
Structured play, play that’s hemmed in, it’s not bad — you should play across the spectrum. But, take bringing a character into play. We did research in our lab where kids brought in their toys so we could see how they played. The boys, in particular, were very, very branded and character-orientated in their play patterns. They were much more likely to bring their Hulk or Avenger. Girls brought teddy bears and had a more open script. Boys would say, “Hulk only wears purple shorts.” It was fascinating. The second you bring structure, even if it’s a character, that’s narrative. Characters have backgrounds. To get back to the first question, what we lose is learning how to be reactive problem solvers, to adapt, think out of the box. Those are life skills kids in the next generation have to have. Seventy percent of jobs today won’t exist when they’re adults.
“What we’re sacrificing with our kids is, ironically, the kind of learning that actually helps us function in the 21st Century.”
When it comes to open play, particularly with outdoor play, how does risk factor in, with, for example things like the so-called “adventure playgrounds” in Europe?
Risk is a part of experimentation. As a culture, risk is more a part of play in parts of Europe than here. Adventure playgrounds, they’re in nascent stages. In the U.S. it will take a while and that’s because we’re so litigious. That trickles down to helicopter parenting, and I think we’re seeing a backlash to that. We just worked with the Boy Scouts to redesign the Cub Scouts. Scouting in the past was a lot more unstructured; it was about getting out in nature and building camps. Over time, there was a move toward safety as an overriding concern, and there’s been a realization that we have to get back to experimentation. It’s OK to shoot a bow and arrow. We thought about, not risk, but how do you bring experimentation back? Risk is a loaded word, so it’s about unstructured, experimental play. It’s about framing for parents, so I don’t use the word “risk.” If you say “experimentation,” they love it.
There’s a public broadcaster in the Netherlands called KRO, which has a producer named Jan Willem-Bult, who created some of the best kids TV programming I’ve ever seen. It’s tied around experimentation and showing kids in a natural habitat. One series, called Piece Of Cake, is about kids cooking. There was one episode with kids making peanut butter; it’s messy and they’re using a blender and there’s no parent. There’s another amazing one with a girl making sushi and she’s straight up using knives. You watch it, and it’s endearing. You can see how kids would love it, and you can also see how they would never show it America.
[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PNZs-Bob1OI expand=1]
How does technology factor into open play?
You have a generation of parents in the 80s and 90s that was very tech wary — tech was all one-way, TV and even video games, playing whatever was designed for you. Millennial parents are either tech accepting or promoting, they see that you can have open, creative play [with tech]; they love Minecraft, they see the value of tech and media as providing opportunities but understand it has to be balanced with outdoor play. It’s not one is bad and one is good; it’s that we have to have a balance. That’s healthy. The downside is that, when anything can be bad or good, then it depends on the context or who you use it with. That leads to more ambiguity in parenting.
Who is doing a good job of integrating tech into open play?
Play World Systems uses tech to create playground structures that are built for physical play. It’s a playground with tech built in — you’re red and I’m green, and we have to run to different parts of the structure and press a button and everyone’s running around like crazy chickens. It’s unstructured play with a cool active factor. Of course, you’re seeing wearables, which can have such an impact on traditional outdoor play — Fitbit, things like that but more kid friendly ones. Zamzee, out of San Francisco, does wearables tied into kids games. Gaming isn’t going away, so let’s at least make it more active.
Have you heard about the problems schools are having, with students who can’t play tag on the playground without hurting each other?
My mom was an elementary school teacher with gifted and talented kids and, her last few years teaching in the early 2000s, she said that when they had their recess, these kids were having real trouble knowing how to play. It literally got to the point where she and her faculty had to teach the kids how to play, because they would just stand around and not know what to do. That’s fascinating; we’re getting to the point where there’s so much structure that we have teach kids to be chaotic.
Tag is a great example — the touching piece, how hard, how physical can I be? It’s not surprising that kids might harm each other, because we don’t have rough-and-tumble play anymore. The other side of it is knowing of social boundaries. At Nickelodeon we did research into the value of tech in play. One of the things parents said was that, because of tech, kids didn’t need to know how to make small talk with new people. They always had something to occupy them, so they didn’t have to come up with things to say. But there’s a real social danger in not being able to interact with someone you don’t know. Tag goes into that, interacting with people you don’t know very well in an informal setting. If kids don’t have this social play, and they don’t experiment with social boundaries, they don’t have the skills to do it.
What can we learn about play from other cultures?
The idea of kids as active participants in creating their play. [In the U.S.], it’s more top down; we create play experiences for you to partake in. Other cultures treat kids as agents in their own play. We do so much research, and the kids are so eloquent; they have a lot to say about what they want and what they like, and we don’t listen to them enough. We need to listen more and make them agents in their play so they can make their own decisions.