The importance of play

The importance of play

In an article on, research bio-psychologist Dr Peter Gray observes ‘…The real problems I’ve faced in life include physical ones (such as how to operate a new-fangled machine at work or unblock the toilet at home), social ones (how to get that perfect woman to be interested in me), moral ones (whether to give a passing grade to a student, for effort, though he failed all the tests), and emotional ones (coping with grief when my first wife died or keeping my head when I fell through the ice while pond skating). Most problems in life can’t be solved with formulae or memorised answers of the type learnt in school. They require the judgement, wisdom and creative ability that come from life experiences. For children, those experiences are embedded in play.’

Dr Gray cites the 3 vital skills learnt through play as the ability to

  • think creatively
  • get along with other people and co-operate effectively
  • control your own impulses and emotions.

Entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs take an approach to business that’s totally out of the box and characterised by an element of fun. ‘Adults whom we call geniuses are those who somehow retain and build upon that childlike capacity throughout their lives,’ says Dr Gray. ‘Albert Einstein said his schooling almost destroyed his interest in mathematics and physics, but he recovered it when he left school. He referred to his innovative work as ‘combinatorial play’. He claimed that he developed his concept of relativity by imagining himself chasing a sunbeam and catching up with it, and then thinking about the consequences.’

In tests where young rats were deprived of play, the result was them becoming ‘emotional cripples’ later. ‘When placed in a moderately frightening environment, they overreact with fear. When placed with an unfamiliar peer, they may alternate between panic and inappropriate, ineffective aggression. They’re incapable of making friends.’ Dr Gray notes that while this is cruel, over the past decades and today, we’re gradually replacing opportunities for kids to play with increased school hours, school-based adult-organised extra-murals and sport.

Without governing their own free play, Dr Gray says kids don’t learn skills of co-operation or gain control of their emotions – if one player opts out of the game, it’s ruined and what bigger punishment than being the one to spoil the game?

Educators in East Asian nations are acknowledging the massive failure of their educational systems. According to the scholar and author Yong Zhao, who’s an expert on schools in China, a common Chinese term used to refer to the products of their schools is gaofen dineng, which essentially means ‘good at tests, but bad at everything else’. Because students spend nearly all of their time studying, they have little opportunity to be creative, discover or pursue their own passions, or develop physical and social skills. Moreover, as revealed by a recent large-scale survey conducted by British and Chinese researchers, Chinese schoolchildren suffer from extraordinarily high levels of anxiety, depression and psychosomatic stress disorders, which appear to be linked to academic pressures and lack of play.


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