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Play Builds Serious Skills

Playtime is many things. It’s fun for children. It’s an escape for busy parents. But it’s much more than that. According to Dr. Stephanie M. Carlson, distinguished McKnight University Professor at the University of Minnesota, and Reflection Sciences co-founder, “Play is about as ‘blueprinted’ a behavior as you can have in terms of basic survival and reproduction.” Furthermore, she adds, “[play] can be construed as a waste of time. But the fact that it’s so universal has led us, researchers, to take it quite seriously.”

What is Executive Function

Carlson’s recent research findings suggest that play can have immediate, beneficial effects on a child’s Executive Function (EF)—the skill set that allows for conscious control of thoughts, actions, and emotions. This distinct set of skills is imperative to school readiness and academic success. Scientists refer to EF as the biological foundation for adaptation and learning throughout life. They argue that strong working memory, cognitive flexibility, and inhibitory control – the three components of EF – provide the basis upon which children’s abilities to learn to read, write, and do math can be built.

Importance of Play

Play is not frivolous—it enhances brain structure and function, and promotes EF development. This happens by practicing EF skills over and over again in a variety of settings. This is where playtime comes in. Unfortunately, according to Gayla Marty, University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development (CEHD) Connect Magazine writer, in today’s world, children play an estimated eight hours less each week than children did just 30 years ago.

“Play gets contrasted with learning, and because we want children to learn more, we cut playtime. But by doing that, we remove a powerful pedagogical tool from our toolkit,” says Dr. Megan Gunnar, Regents Professor of Child Development and Director of the Institute of Child Development. 

EF does not replace Social Emotional Learning (SEL)—they work in tandem. In fact, SEL skills, which are part of playful learning, enable children to listen to directions, pay attention, solve disputes with words, and focus on tasks without constant supervision. So it really is not surprising that many classic games support SEL and EF as part of their inherent structure.

Playworks, a Reflection Sciences partner, has collaborated with numerous researchers and leaders to determine best practices. The newest program, Keep Playing, offers a Game of the Week for SEL and Brain Breaks that develop EF. The Game of the Week is designed to engage and interact to develop and strengthen their social emotional skills. Brain Breaks, short games for the entire class, specifically address EF development. 

They can be used to teach and review behavioral skills that rely on inhibitory control as well as reinforce following rules by accessing their working memory. In addition, Brain Breaks decrease the cognitive overload children can experience from the academic rigors of the day, allowing learners to return to work with renewed energy and focus.

kids countingPlay is one of the most important ways in which children learn,” Jack Shonkoff, Director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, explained. He also noted that the “right” kind of play can produce the “right” kind of academic achievement because, regardless of the situation, kids will be learning valuable skills.

Play provides opportunities for self-discovery and social connections, and it allows kids to try out ideas and use what they are learning in their academic subjects in a less pressured environment. Play develops imagination, speaking, and listening skills and solidifies math and science concepts.

Playtime also provides a safe and healthy way to practice empathy, engage in physical activity, avoid toxic stress, and even heal from trauma. But here’s the problem—there are many barriers to play, especially for students of color and students in low-income communities, which then deprives these students of essential skill development. This disparity existed long before the pandemic, and COVID-19 is creating additional trauma for kids, making playtime even more important. 

Focus on Playtime

Even if children can’t run around at recess during a pandemic, educators and parents can integrate playful learning into their curricula with resources such as Playworks Keep Playing. Playful learning promotes EF skills by emphasizing the process of learning, rather than the content. This type of learning helps children develop social skills, challenges their imaginations and can ultimately bring them more joy. It’s impossible to overstate the power of play in developing EF and social emotional skills, and parents and educators alike should keep this in mind when we move into a post-pandemic world.  

How will you focus on executive function and help your students grow through play? Whatever you decide—get informed. 

Check out these free resources from Reflection Sciences:

About the Author:

Carrie FruinCarrie Fruin is the Director of Curriculum and Instruction for Reflection Sciences and holds an Education Specialist Degree in the area of Leadership in Digital Transformation. She taught high school science for over 25 years and has worked in higher education building high quality, online professional development programs for teachers. She has a strong belief that all students can learn, and it is through the understanding of Executive Function (EF) skills and their relationship to Social-emotional learning (SEL) that will assist educators in reaching all children and providing them a true foundation for success in life.

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