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This Is Your Kid’s Brain On Play

The following was produced in partnership with our friends at KinderCare.

You probably agree that your preschooler doesn’t need to be chained to a desk just yet (especially if you’re reading this while chained to yours), but if you think all the time they spend playing would be better spent prepping for kindergarten entrance exams, you’re missing the point. Researchers have determined play isn’t just fun — it’s essential to how your kid learns reading, writing, and arithmetic. Even more importantly, it encourages prosocial behavior, or doing things for the benefit of others. Play helps kids become “an authentic, purposeful, perseverant self,” according to Dr. Stuart Brown, and he should know.


Dr. Brown is a psychiatrist, author, and pioneering researcher whose life’s work is basically getting kids to play more (and their parents, too). In 1989, he founded the nonprofit National Institute for Play, dedicated to expanding scientific knowledge of play and helping everyone access it. Before starting NIFP, Dr. Brown spent his clinical psychiatry career cataloging thousands of people’s “play profiles,” including homicidal young men, who he found almost all had play-deprived childhoods.

That’s the bad news. The good news is Dr. Brown’s work has shown a positive correlation between play and intelligence, happiness, and success — and that correlation exists at any age. Which means this article should interest you whether you want to understand why and how play benefits your preschooler, or you just got questioned about the personal “Summer Fridays” policy you instituted at work.

“Play must be generated from within the child”

Pay Attention, Your Kid Is Trying To Play With You
Dr. Brown says parents must observe their kids’ natural play preferences and provide contexts in which those can blossom. “Knowledge of each person’s  unique preference for play patterns is a good means by which to identify their natural talents and those things that give them a sense of joy — for children and their parents,” he notes.

The first step is to simply recognize the type of play to which your kid is most naturally drawn as a baby. Do they get juiced by new toys or objects? Are they most enthusiastic when playing socially in groups of other kids? Do they insist on moving and dancing like it’s Spring Break, 1999 just because they heard an advertising jingle on the radio? Whatever it is, once you’ve identified it, make it happen. Then, follow their lead as they grow. “Play must be generated from within the child,” Dr. Brown says.


Dr. Brown calls this “play hygiene” because it’s a little like all that stuff you’re trying to get them to do in the bathroom every night: You can give them a toothbrush and toothpaste, but if you’re actually brushing their teeth for them, it’s probably not going to end well for either of you.

Squad Goals: More Than Just A Hashtag
Following your child’s lead while your kid is playing with blocks is easy enough — you can build your rocket after they fall asleep — but the next step towards good play hygiene is providing open-ended, group play opportunities. In his 2008 TED Talk, Dr. Brown describes a particular study wherein the importance of group play for rugrats was revealed … by actual rats.

In the experiment, one group of rats was deprived of play while another was not. Researchers observed the brain connections and social behaviors of the play-deprived group and noted they couldn’t handle aggression, tell friend from foe, or figure out how to mate. They became socially defective, just like your old roommate who couldn’t figure out how to mate. The implication is that play primes and activates a particular set of genes necessary for the development of executive function (the cognitive processes behind behavior control) and prosocial, empathetic behavior.


Get Ready To Rumble
Group play opportunities start in toddler playgroups and continue into preschool classrooms, and if you’ve ever witnessed either of those, you know how overwhelming and chaotic they can feel. If your first instinct is to referee, Dr. Brown says thanks for the kind intentions, but let the kids sort it out. “There’s a natural anxiety that somebody will get hurt, but gradual risk taking is a learned skill. A 3-year-old won’t spontaneously climb up a big slide and fall off if they’ve healthily learned to play prior to that.”

Turns out, part of that learning happens through rough-and-tumble play among preschoolers, or as you and the other parents call it, mayhem. It’s all normal, developmentally appropriate, and, frankly, necessary, “Particularly if the kid’s going to have some sense of where they belong in the group and how to get along with others,” notes Dr. Brown. A general rule of thumb: if a tussle is accompanied by smiles and squeals, you should allow, even encourage, a bit of chasing, wrestling, or block tower destruction. Just make sure the other kid is also smiling.

3 Playtime Classics And Why They Work
Knowing how important play is to your kid’s developing brain, maybe it’s easier to understand why your partner insisted those other playground dads are, in fact, your new best friends. Even if you still think that’s kind of awkward, having their kids over to play with yours can help make them all smarter. As you try to determine what the heck you should have the kids do, remember, the key to effective play activities is that they allow kids to be physically and mentally engaged in meaningful experiences as full-on participants. These examples will get kids talking to each other, role playing, experimenting, developing emotionally and socially, and building prosocial behavior. But you and the guys can just call it “playing.”

  1. Traffic Director: Start by explaining what traffic directors do. “What do you think they do? Yes, they tell cars where to go when the lights don’t work, and give daddy tickets when he ignores them.” Have some kids pretend to be cars while others direct traffic using only their bodies. This gets them moving, nurtures community-mindedness, and facilitates pretend play and role-playing to help them understand fantasy versus reality. “When a kid is emotionally engaged in imagining an identity, that lights up all kinds of associations in the brain and develops cortical maps with a lot of prosocial outcomes,” Dr. Brown notes. (Ages: 3-4 years)Playing_House
  2. Play House: Hey, if it ain’t broke … Grab any toy or material that can have multiple uses, like toy people, pretend food and furniture, kid-safe utensils, and dress-up clothes and let the kids go nuts. Show your interest — they’ll dig your affirmation and maybe even let you play. If you engage them, ask open-ended questions, says Meg Davis, KCE’s Manager of Curriculum Development: “Who lives in this house? Who will you be? What will my name be?” (Sadly, your name will almost always be, “Snack-fetching clown”) Open-ended questions are great because, rather than driving towards a particular outcome, they encourage deeper thinking and richer play. You’ll be amazed as the kids create their own scenarios and ask you for even more materials you didn’t think of because your old, brittle mind doesn’t look at a soccer ball and see a head of cauliflower. (Ages: 1-3 years)Play_Girl_KinderCare
  3. Get The Heck Outside: Again, no need to invent your own preschool play curriculum when you already know what works: sticks, rocks, and bugs. Davis says to ask the same kinds of questions you would with indoor toys. “What can we do with these rocks? Can we make patterns with them? What are you doing with those sticks?” As needed, you can also ask environmentally specific questions like, “How long are those fangs and do you think the venom is lethal?” Point is, “open-ended play” means “richer play,” and there’s nothing more open-ended than nature, says Davis. (All Ages)

Developing a healthy play profile in your kid comes down to a few simple rules: “Start early, limit adult control, provide enough templates to let kids’ preferences emerge, and realize one size doesn’t fit all.” says Dr. Brown.

So, basically, it’s like dressing them.