11 Scientific Benefits of Play
Playing is a natural part of growing up. Unfortunately, playtime might be on the wane for kids today. Nationwide surveys have found that in the U.S., recess times—even for kindergarteners—are shrinking, and in some cases, the midday break to run around and scramble up the monkey bars has disappeared altogether in favor of more time in the classroom. But playtime is vital for kids’ health and happiness—and for the well-being of adults as well. Here are 11 scientific reasons why playing is more than just fun and games, whether you’re young or young at heart.
1. IT CHANGES THE BRAIN.
Playing helps young brains develop, scientists say. The experience affects the connections between neurons in the brain’s prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that controls thought analysis and decision-making), helping kids develop executive functions like the ability to regulate emotions and solve problems. Research also suggests that pretend play helps foster abstract thought and the ability to envision other perspectives.
2. IT DEVELOPS SOCIAL SKILLS.
Playing is how people make friends, whether it’s 5-year-olds playing with blocks or 30-year-olds playing a pick-up basketball game at the park. Young kids learn to negotiate social boundaries through playtime, hashing out things like what constitutes a fair set of rules. One 2006 study calls play the “primary means” through which kids develop social skills and learn to interact with their peers.
3. IT KEEPS YOU ACTIVE.
Less than half of American kids today get the recommended 60 minutes of intense physical activity per day. Those minutes spent running around a playground or the backyard add up. Riding bikes around the neighborhood, a friendly game of soccer, or just playing tag—they’re all secretly exercise.
4. IT IMPROVES ACADEMIC PERFORMANCE.
In 2012, an international review of 14 studies found that when kids moved more, they performed better in school. Play seems especially beneficial to kids’ performance in math and reading, which both require efficient executive function. A 2008 study of fourth through eighth graders found that when kids passed more of their fitness tests in P.E., they were more likely to pass state math and English tests.
5. IT IMPROVES FOCUS.
Studies and surveys have found that kids are more focused on their schoolwork after recess (which is defined as unstructured playtime). A 2009 study that used U.S. government data on public school children found that kids who had at least a daily 15-minute recess break were rated as better behaved and less disruptive in the classroom by their teachers than kids who had little or no recess.
6. IT REDUCES STRESS.
As we know, playing is often a secret form of exercise. And what does exercise do? It reduces stress and tension. Even forms of play that aren’t physically strenuous can be good for stress levels. A 2009 study found that playing casual video games (defined as fun, easy to play games, rather than first-person shooters) for twenty minutes could improve mood and reduce stress.
7. IT IMPROVES SLEEP.
Research shows that physical activity improves people’s sleep. One study found that 150 minutes of playtime per week—about 20 minutes a day—improved adults’ sleep performance by 65 percent. Plus, just playing outside could help improve snoozes. A 2013 study found that spending time outdoors, away from artificial light, shifts the cycle of sleep hormones. This helped participants go to bed and wake up earlier, and feel less groggy in the morning.
8. IT IMPROVES ADHD-RELATED BEHAVIOR.
Research suggests that running around at recess is particularly important for kids with ADHD, who tend to have trouble sitting still and focusing in the classroom. One study asked kids to play tag before school and found that after eight weeks, they showed fewer signs of impulsivity and aggression.
9. IT REDUCES AGGRESSION.
One psychiatrist has argued that a lack of playfulness during childhood can lead to pathological aggression later in life. Spontaneous play, by encouraging socialization and providing happy moments, can help deter the high levels of aggression that lead to violence, he argues.
10. IT FOSTERS CREATIVITY.
Playtime allows kids to think up their own rules, explore new ideas, make up stories, express their imaginations, and experiment. All of these things help kids exercise their creative muscles.
11. IT MAKES YOU HAPPY.
Surprise! Playing is enjoyable. Furthermore, social and physical activity have both been shown to bolster mental health. Social activities have been shown to reduce depressive symptoms while regular exercise can stabilize mood and decrease anxiety. Basically, all the science is demanding that you go out and play right now.
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