Can more rough play help our boys become more empathetic or more focused?
There has been a lot of attention given recently to the values of play in children’s cognitive development. Free unstructured play, safe access to the outdoors, and imaginative play are becoming less and less available to our children, as more and more of them are pushed into earlier and earlier accademic school and pre-school programs, and much of their remaining free time is filled with structured or proscribed activities, such as extra-curricular classes and TV and computer use. Without free play, researchers are finding, children don’t fully develope what is often called executive function. It seems that not only free, imaginative play, but also rough play is necessary too.
Executive Function, according to wikipedia is: “is used by psychologists and neuroscientists to describe a loosely defined collection of brain processes that are responsible for planning, cognitive flexibility, abstract thinking, rule acquisition, initiating appropriate actions and inhibiting inappropriate actions, and selecting relevant sensory information.“
Read this review on the book: Children, Play, and Development, by Fergus P. Hughes at: http://www.movementforchildhood.com/play.pdf
Here is an exert of Hughes’ thoughts from: http://www.uwgb.edu/hughesf/Spontaneous%20Play%20.htm
Rough and Tumble Play as Pathology. “Rough-and-tumble play, a form of social engagement consisting of activities such as play fighting, hitting, wrestling, and chasing with the intent of fighting, is believed to constitute approximately 15% of all the vigorous physical play observed in children (Humphreys & Smith, 1984; Smith, 1989). While it is not known why immature organisms engage in such play, Pellegrini and Smith (1998) suggested that its primary function might be to allow children, and particularly boys, to establish their status within a dominance hierarchy. This appears to be the function of rough and tumble in other mammals, such as chimpanzees; it is a relatively safe way to establish one’s status within the group without the risk of injury that may occur during genuine aggressive acts (Pacquette, 1994).”
“There is a correlation between the appearance of this activity and the maturity of the frontal lobes of the brain. The executive functions of the frontal lobes include reflection, imagination, empathy, and play/creativity, and when these develop, they allow for greater behavioral flexibility and foresight, for well-focused goal-directed behavior. As the frontal lobes mature, the frequency of rough and tumble play goes down, and damage to the frontal lobes is associated with a higher level of playfulness (Panksepp, Normansell, Coc, & Siviy, 1995).”
He goes on to write:
“Since learning requires attention and focus, vigorous physical play may appear to be antithetical to the educational process. Teachers may believe that opportunities for physical play may make children, and particularly those diagnosed with attention disorders, even more difficult to teach. Panksepp (1998) maintained that, as is true of other appetites, the need for rough and tumble is self- regulating process. Once the need is satisfied, the organism will return to a relatively quiet state. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that if children are deprived of physical play, they will play with even greater vigor when given the opportunity to do so (Pellegrini, Huberty, & Jones, 1995; Smith & Hagan, 1980). If there is an appetite for rough and tumble play, and if such play not only reflects but also promotes neurological maturity, it seems that it would be counterproductive and possibly harmful to try to prevent it.”
This one is worth a read too, explaining clearly the importance of extended imaginative play on developing executive function.
Old-Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills, by Alix Spiegel http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=19212514
“Clearly the way that children spend their time has changed. Here’s the issue: A growing number of psychologists believe that these changes in what children do has also changed kids’ cognitive and emotional development.”
“It turns out that all that time spent playing make-believe actually helped children develop a critical cognitive skill called executive function. Executive function has a number of different elements, but a central one is the ability to self-regulate. Kids with good self-regulation are able to control their emotions and behavior, resist impulses, and exert self-control and discipline.”
While it has been known for some time that boistrous play with dad(s) (or mum(s)) is very important for developing gross motor skills, and learning about personal boundaries etc., I was surprised to learn that rough play in general, even among peers, may be essential in helping children to become more empathetic, and to have more self-control and foresight. Even more importantly, those children, often boys, who are more energetic and aggressive need it more than others, and without it cannot focus in school; hence the rise in “hyperactivity disorders”, many of which, interestingly, disappear once a ‘diagnosed’ child leaves the confines of a brick and mortar school to home-school or un-school.
It also instinctively made sense to me that as the frontal lobes mature with the aid of rough play, a child’s need for wrestling goes down, a calmness and sense of focus appear.
So, sorry for all the quoted research….I think we need to let our kids rumble!!