Play is commonly defined as an activity that is fun, voluntary, improvisational, absorbing, and has no obvious purpose. It can also be understood as the opposite of boring work – something that is done with a specific outcome in mind, something we need to do and which takes will power to continue.
When an intelligent animal is deprived of play, it will not develop into a normal adult, and will instead experience severe problems with learning and social behavior. It is obvious therefore that play is integral to learning. But why is it so necessary in achieving educational outcomes, when its very nature is to ignore the ‘correct’ outcome and goals, and focus on the process?
How does it help us arrive at a destination quickly when it encourages variations and detours?
Why does play foster learning?
Here are some theories proposed by the experts.
Neuroplasticity and play Play involves focused attention, it is rewarding, and it promotes the development of new movement and perceptions. These are all important preconditions for neuroplasticity.
Play seems to have a more widespread effect on the brain than work.
Play helps you move outside the box Engaging in play is a way to ensure that we are always experimenting with new options and thinking outside the box.
In the context of movement and exercise, play can be thought of as a safeguard against habitually using the same movement pattern to solve a particular motor challenge, and ignoring potentially better solutions. The more we engage in a certain movement pattern, the stronger that pattern of neural activity in the brain will become.
The strength of a neural pathway that results from repetition can be likened to carving a groove through snow while skiing down a mountain. On the first pass, all pathways down the mountain are equally likely. But on the second pass, you are more likely to fall into the groove created on the first pass. The more times the same path is traveled, the deeper the groove becomes and the easier it is to follow that same pathway.
What does this have to do with play?
A ‘correct’ or goal oriented mindset toward movement, exercise or sports will encourage use of the most well grooved motor patterns. A more playful process can encourage exploration of alternative patterns, some of which might be more effective once they are practiced a few times.
Thus we can look at our motivation to play as a natural incentive to experiment with new solutions, even if they don’t appear superior at first glance.
We could also look at play as a way to “return to the drawing board” or start over from scratch on a movement problem without preconceived notions about the right or wrong way to move.
Play develops resourcefulness and adaptability Play theorists have also speculated that play may teach adaptability and resourcefulness by exposing us to a wide variety of new experiences.
Using the skiing down the mountain analogy, someone who is motivated to explore the whole mountain will expose themselves to many different pathways and terrains.
This will promote a creativity and responsiveness that is useful in the real world, which always involves novel challenges.
Michael Merzenich believes that one of the major practical takeaways from his pioneering research into neuroplasticity is that proper movement training would not involve simply repeating the same motion over and over again in the same way. Exploration and variety are more important for real world value so the brain is best exercised with a variety of movements and challenges.
Consider these ideas in the context of training the ability to lower your center of gravity to the ground.
If you watch kids move from the floor to standing, you will see them select a different pathway almost every time. But if you watch adults do this movement in a gym or class, you will see one or maybe two ways to lower the center of gravity – a squat and a lunge.
Although there is very clearly an indispensable role for repetitive and sometimes boring drills in getting better at a specific skill, all elite movers attain their status not just through boring drudgery, but through playful creativity and exploration.
The freedom to invent is intimately bound up with the freedom that we associate with the act of play.