Playing is a normal part of childhood, but it's also an important element in development. You've probably watched your kids as they explored imaginary lands or fought off invisible bad guys, but you could have missed exactly what this activity was accomplishing. Experts increasingly agree that free play promotes the development of brain functions and may contribute to a higher IQ in adulthood.
What is free play?
The distinction between playing and free play is quite important in the context of brain development. Play, in this context, refers to structured activities like board games, sports or crafts. Free play, on the other hand, is that inexact time when kids just run loose. They may build sand castles, make up an imagined scenario or explore your backyard with friends. The possibilities really are endless, especially when imagination is involved.
How free play influences brain development
Many free play situations require kids to create social connections and process new information. For instance, when your child meets another kid on the playground and the two start a game, both children go through a subconscious thought process. They must know what the rules of their game are, what they must do while playing and how they'll interact with each other. Solving such problems requires the brain to work hard. According to NPR, the brain's prefrontal cortex has to establish new neurological connections to accommodate all that social navigation.
"The experience of play changes the connections of the neurons at the front end of your brain," Sergio Pellis, a researcher at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, told the source. "And without play experience, those neurons aren't changed."
The prefrontal cortex deals, in part, with solving problems, controlling emotions and making plans. Because play exercises these abilities when kids are young, it prepares them for tough situations they'll face later in life.
Developing into social beings
According to a study published in the journal Neuroscience Letters, play may stimulate and train the brain's emotional centers. The correlation between what play triggers in the brain and the ways people use those skills suggests that playing helps humans become social. Some experts even believe that the brain needs play to develop social skills, which are important to human survival.
"The function of play is to build pro-social brains, social brains that know how to interact with others in positive ways," Jaak Panksepp, researcher at Washington State University, told NPR.
Without free play, kids may not be able to develop their minds as effectively as they would if they receive plenty of opportunities to let their imaginations run wild.