Food? Shelter? A vegetable with every meal? Health insurance? Maybe you think of these as the basics, the essential ingredients of a healthy childhood in a nurturing family. But if you look closely at the list, one of the essentials is missing; family fun. Why does fun deserve to be on the same list as food and shelter? Research by psychologist Peter Gray published in the American Journal of Play suggests that play is an important adaptive survival activity in groups, and has been since the days of early humankind. “Free play,” he says is particularly important to children, and there are indications that this type of play has dwindled in most children’s lives.
Free play is game or imaginative activity that is freely chosen, age-mixed, and minimally competitive. It is the kind of play that arises spontaneously when kids gather; the “here we are in the vacant lot with nothing but a piece of string and five bottle caps so what do we do now” kind of play. Adult organized activities like soccer games or kit-building projects aren’t bad, they just aren’t free play and aren’t the kind of fun that gives children the most benefit. According to Stuart Brown, a leading expert on play who once studied seriously disturbed people who commit crime, not having the opportunity for free play in childhood is often part of the life story of maladjusted individuals. Play is a “state of mind,” says Brown, “an absorbing, apparently purposeless activity that provides enjoyment and a suspension of self-consciousness and sense of time.” Get rid of play, and you’ll measure a quickly rising level of stress and negative outcomes. The move in some schools to replace recess with academic time threatens to chip away at a mid-day free play period that stimulates creativity, learning, and brain functioning, and in the long run will work out poorly for the schools that try it.
Maybe you’ve let family fun slip off of the list because your family budget is looking worse than the national budget, or because stress and time have given you a case of “fun amnesia.” If that’s the case, then you’ve noticed that dull haze that develops during the day, and those instances where you realize that you can’t remember the last time you laughed out loud. It’s probably time to inject fun back into your family’s environment. But where to start? Maybe trying to remember the kind of free play fun you found when you were growing up. Did it involve digging figurine-sized tunnels in a vacant lot and filling them with water? Was there a “craze” that played itself out with the kids in the neighborhood, like a loosely organized, grand masters handball tournament? Maybe the best afternoon you had involved looking for evidence of a fairy visitation among the bushes in your backyard from the night before, or making yarn ghosts. Getting the picture? The best ingredients for a recipe for free play fun involve an attitude of curiosity, some room to explore, and a measure of freedom from adult direction. This is what Stuart Brown and other researchers have found sets the stage for mind-healthy play. You may also notice that this type of activity builds on itself naturally, organically, and doesn’t require progression toward an end goal. Achievement, if present in the activity, is part of the play and not a means to an end. Why does this kind of play tend to occur outdoors? Perhaps because there are less restrictions outside of the house.
Are you still having difficulties finding ideas to initiate family fun play? Try some of these fun-starters, being mindful that once the kids are involved, managing their choices during play needs to be avoided:
- Set up some toys or figurines around a tree or in strategic places in the yard and ask the kids to show you what the figurines would do if they came to life.
- Make a paper boat out of paper and tape, put some water in the tub, and ask if the kids can make one.
- Bring out a ball and make a “rule” about what each person has to do with the ball while walking across the yard.
- Snow day? Have a “migloo” building contest, that is, a miniature igloo building contest.
- Make snow angels, but finish them off by making some pans of colored water with food coloring and “paint” the wings of the angels.
By now, you’ve probably got the picture that once children are given permission to use their imaginations and really trust that they have the freedom to do so, they will come up with some great ideas on their own. If all of this focus on play doesn’t seem like serious business, consider the following facts about play and the thinking brain described by Gwen Dewar, Ph.D.. It is theorized that play helps stimulate the secretion of BDNF, or Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor, a chemical essential for brain cell health. Play enhances divergent thinking and problem solving, as measured by research that tested children on these types of problems following free play. We could go on for a few more pages describing research into the benefits of play, but that would keep you from getting out of the chair and out the door with the kids. Need more inspiration to keep your free play activities happening on a regular basis, take a look at Stuart Brown’s book synthesizing his research in this fascinating area, Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul.