My first research assistant position was with Professor Catherine Garvey in the Psychology Department at Johns Hopkins University. It was all fun and games. Literally. Professor Garvey was a world expert on play.
Traditionally, we have described play as an activity that we pursue for its intrinsic enjoyment and recreation rather than for any serious or practical purpose. But lest you be fooled, play is anything but frivolous.
1. We learn when we play. Children develop language and executive functioning skills, learn to negotiate with others and manage stress, and figure out how to pursue their goals while ignoring distractions, among other things. Pretend play helps kids learn how to self-regulate because they have to collaborate on just how their imaginary world will work, and in doing so, they develop the capacity to reason about hypothetical events.
2. More play, more success. In places where young children have more recess, we see greater academic success. Physical play enhances our ability to focus on what matters and ignore salient but irrelevant stimulation, improves cognitive flexibility, and promotes better executive functioning. Even the uber-elite at Davos are promoting more free play for kids based on the argument that play is essential to developing agency, collaboration, and creativity – just the skills workers need to maintain an advantage over the robots that are knocking on the office door.
3. But American kids are playing a lot less. It is widely recognized that American kids are playing a lot less these days. A study of 8,950 preschool children and parents in the US found that only 51% of children went outside to walk or play at least once per day with a parent. And a significant minority of kids no longer have school recess. This is a problem for all kids, and especially for kids with attentional issues, including those with ADHD.
4. Less play, more mental health problems. It is certainly possible that the correlation between less play and more mental health problems is not a mere coincidence. The decline of free play means less time developing all those skills mentioned above and may be associated with a decline in a sense of agency and internal sense of control, which in turn are associated with risk of anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and related mental health conditions.
5. Adults need to play, too. Play is not just for kids. In fact, play is important to mental health throughout our lives. One of the seemingly progressive innovations in the US workplace has been the debut of the policy of unlimited vacation days. The invitation for employees to take as much vacation they want looks good on the surface, but in fact, unlimited vacation policy is resulting in work cultures where people are taking even less time off. This is unfortunate for many reasons, including that vacation is a natural remedy for reducing stress and anxiety and increasing creativity and overall well-being.
In the US, this evening marks the start of a long holiday weekend with Monday being Labor Day, a national holiday that was established to honor the contributions that workers have made to the health and prosperity of our country. Seems exactly right that we celebrate by working less and playing more. Many thanks to my professor and mentor for her grand introduction to the study of play. It really was fun and games. And like all good play, I learned a lot that I carry with me in work and life to this day.