Play deprivation can damage early child development

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Long-term impacts of play deprivation during early child development include isolation, depression, reduced self-control and poor resilience.

Educators, parents and policy makers should all be concerned at the rapid decline in unsupervised free play for children, which may damage early child development and later social and emotional learning, according to research.

Sustained, moderate-to-severe play deprivation during the first 10 years of life appears to be linked to poor early child development, later leading to depression, difficulty adapting to change, poorer self-control, and a greater tendency to addiction as well as fragile and shallower interpersonal relationships. Play deprivation in childhood has come up in numerous interviews that I have conducted with some of America’s most violent criminals.

This emerging evidence is set against childhood environments where outdoor play has decreased by 71 per cent in one generation in the US and UK. Intergenerational play and ‘family’ games are also in decline. Poverty and fewer opportunities to play are endemic, particularly in inner cities.

Joe Frost, the leading American scholar of play, contends that the diminution, modification and/or disappearance of play during the past 50 years is causing a public health crisis and a threat to societal welfare that may last generations.

Findings on play and early child development

Mounting evidence regarding the impact of play deprivation on early child development and social and emotional learning comes from three sources: behavioral studies of mammals; neuroimaging and chemical analysis of animal brains during and after play; and exploring the childhood play histories of thousands of human adults.

The evidence remains incomplete because it would be unethical to deprive human infants or young children of play intentionally. But findings are sufficiently compelling to demand that we rethink early child development policy and practice around play in homes and in early years’ institutions and schools, and that we reconsider how adults lead their lives.

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Researchers have detailed behavioral evidence in rats showing both the deleterious effects of play deprivation and the positive effects of adequate play. Rats do not function well if they don’t play. Play-deprived rats can’t distinguish friend from foe. They don’t mate well, and they are less resilient than normal rats in response to stress. All rats react with fear and flee if they are subject to a cat odour-laden stimulus. However, rats that play get over it and return to normal. Play-deprived rats don’t get over the stress well.

Play primes the brain for social and emotional learning

There are parallels with severe play-deprivation in individual humans – particularly young children who find themselves unable to play because, for example, they are caught up in wars, severe poverty, or abusive home settings. When these children do not play normally, they may have real difficulty joining in with the human tribe and recovering from their experiences. That’s because belonging to your own social group is a complex social and emotional learning experience, catalyzed by play.

When they reach elementary school, severely play-deprived children may not have learned the complicated languages of play which harmoniously bring together the cognitive, emotional, physical and social elements that are all necessary for personal competence in playing.

The social and emotional learning that allows safe play between kids occurs slowly. A child who has not had early experience of healthy play may overdo the play process or may simply not understand what is going on. These children can become isolated or bullied, or they may become bullies. The lingering effects of childhood play deficits echo in later adult attitudes about becoming a viable part of a community.

Behavioral evidence around play-deprived children is reinforced by studies of rats. These experiments show the anatomical benefits of healthy play, which activates a wide array of genes in the prefrontal cortex. This is the executive area of the brain, governing decision-making for rats as well as other social mammals, including humans.

Jeffrey Burgdorf at Northwestern University created an experiment in which rats, aged between four and 15 weeks, engaged in rough-and-tumble play. After they had experienced intense play, he found that between 300 and 1,200 genes had been activated in the prefrontal cortex. The late Jaak Panksepp, a play neuroscientist and co-author, with Lucy Biven, of ‘The Archaeology of the Mind,’ suggested that as many as 3,000 genes in the cortex may be activated by play. In short, play seems to be vital in crafting social brains.

“Rats do not function well if they don’t play. They can't distinguish friend from foe. They don't mate well and they are less resilient than normal rats in their responses to stress.”

This work needs finer analysis. We do not yet fully understand the processes by which chemicals such as dopamine, endocannabinoids, opiates and IGF-1 are released in the brain. We need to know more about how neurotransmitters and neuro-hormones operate in response to play experiences and how they can influence brain development, functioning and lifetime plasticity.

Early child development of young male murderers

Another piece helps to build a fuller picture. My own research, conducted since 1968, has involved around 6,000 individually conducted play histories. It correlates play deprivation during early child development with the predilection of felons for violent, antisocial criminal activities. We found the play experience of homicidal individuals to be vastly different from that of other human beings. Their childhoods were typically characterized by isolation, abuse or bullying.

As a clinician reviewing incarcerated young male murderers, I noted that none of them, in their self-reporting or in family recollections, remembered ‘normal’ playground rough-and-tumble play. They were unable to remember the names of playground friends. Bullying and inappropriately acted out aggression were their ‘play’ patterns. There is an intriguing parallel here between rats and antisocial humans: behavioral research shows that rats deprived of rough-and-tumble play don’t possess the social skills to distinguish appropriate from inappropriate aggression.

Early child development underpins play ‘drive’

The skills and capacities to play seem to begin to develop in humans very early on, from the first communications between mother and child. Normally, joyfulness naturally erupts between mother and infant as they perform baby talk spontaneously and instinctively. This attunement and bonding between parent and infant underpin a sense of safety, and they are accompanied by mutual joy that provides grounding for the play drive to respond to opportunities that arise. In contrast, when that attunement process between parent and child is interrupted or does not occur, early child development is disrupted. Then infants tend to see the world as threatening and unsafe, and they are less ready for play.

Allan N. Schore, a leading neuropsychologist, has shown how fine attunement and trust between mothers and infants produce mutual electrical rhythms that shape the baby’s brain and, likely, set the foundations for a child being able to play and establish trust with other people.

Risks of ‘helicopter’ parenting for social and emotional learning

For parents in general, an issue that is more relevant than severe play deprivation is the need for children to be able to respond to play within their own instinctive capability. Parents or caretakers should allow that natural gleeful pleasure in play to emerge in its own way. However, ‘helicopter’ parents sometimes orchestrate how they think infants should play rather than leave them free to respond.

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When children are highly sensitized to what the adults want to see, or their parents have a fixed plan for what their children should become, they may learn to suppress their intrinsic play experience to fit the adult who is trying to mold them. So authentic play is set aside to gain their parents’ approval.

Among my early interviewees was Charles Whitman, whose childhood play history featured consistent play deprivation due to an overbearing and disturbed father. In August 1966, in Austin, Texas, Whitman killed his mother and his wife. Then, by sniper fire from the University of Texas clock tower, he killed more than a dozen people and wounded more than 30. His preschool teachers, recalling Whitman’s childhood, said that, rather than spontaneously engage in activities of his choice, he would look carefully to see what pleased the teacher. He mimicked what he thought would be appropriate rather than picking behavior that was true to himself. He became a gifted mimic, hiding his inner feelings from others.

Such compensatory behavior occurs among many play-deprived children – they can become skilled in pleasing adults and in conforming behavior. In doing so, they are not expressing their own motivations. That intrinsic motivation is found in childhood through play. If children don’t play, they do not find the authentic exuberance that is so obvious in the playground when they play freely from within themselves.

Play-deprived early child development

In contrast, severely play-deprived children will tend to engage in automatic and repetitive activities, failing to engage socially. In later childhood, the play-deprived child may have more explosive reactions to circumstances rather than a sense of belonging. As adults, they are often unoptimistic and subject to smoldering depression due to a lack of joy in their lives. They tend to be more ideologically fixed and certain with little ambiguity in their social worlds. That’s because play fosters the social and emotional learning and acceptance that ambiguity is a part of complex and human interactions.

Play-saturated children tend to have more resilience. They feel comfortable with, and are curious to know, other children who are different. Tolerance and developing empathy are natural outgrowths of more complex play processes. Rough-and-tumble play provides nuanced social learning that inclusion and exclusion is part of the politics of human beings getting along. It is not a life or death thing – you can roll with the punches and still belong to social groups. A child who does not gain this social and emotional learning may become hyper-reactive to criticism, interpreting it as exclusion.

“Reviewing incarcerated young male murderers, I noted that none of them remembered “normal” playground rough and tumble play … Bullying and inappropriately acted out aggression were their “play” patterns.”

The late Brian Sutton-Smith, a pioneering play researcher, contended that among adults who continuously disrupted a group process in, say, a church or civic organization, one could normally find that play deficits had occurred in their childhoods which appeared to keep them from ‘belonging.’ This disrupted early child development created a lack of social skills and made it difficult for them to participate in tribal sharing and cooperative activity in an adult unit.

Play implications for social and emotional learning

Is there a play crisis? We should certainly be alert to the possibility. Numerous influences are currently diminishing access to self-organized childhood play. We do not know the outcome of these many influences.

All parents should identify their own play nature, recognize the spontaneous play natures of their children, and allow environments to nourish those natures. The anarchy of normal play at preschool should be given space. Within it lies a complicated learning process, as complicated as learning to read.

The social and emotional learning that is fundamental in play behavior is vital for human survival. Play might seem trivial in industrial societies, but we should understand that it exists because it helps us adapt to each other. It is a basic aspect of human socialization that lets us have more fun with each other and, yes, helps to keep us from killing each other and allows a cooperative ethic to develop in each of us.

Play also equals learning. Children engaged playfully will have memorable learning experiences. If math is joyful with a playful teacher, children learn better. Play should be infused into the education system because it makes learning joyful and school into a source of reward, not a punishment.

In the West, we have distorted life by separating work and play, forgetting our pasts as hunter-gatherers, in which sharing and joyfulness were integrated into the task of finding food. Honoring a human need to be in a play state and seeing this as a public health necessity is as important as hand washing, good nutrition or careful driving.

Policy Implications

Governments need to recognize major play deprivation as child abuse.

Practical Implications

Doctors should encourage playful learning for parents and infants by writing a “prescription for play” at every well-child visit in the first two years of life.

Educators, pediatricians and families should advocate for and protect unstructured play and playful learning in preschools and schools.

Teachers should focus on playful rather than didactic learning by letting children take the lead and follow their own curiosity.

Stuart Brown

Stuart Brown

Founder and President of National Institute for Play, California, USA.

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Original research and references

  1. Stuart Brown S & Christopher Vaughan Play, how it shapes the brain, opens the imagination and invigorates the soul Penguin Random House, 2010