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Let children play

Neuroscience educator Nathan Wallis explains why child-led free play is fundamental to the optimal development of the brain. By Kate Barber.

As adults, we understand the word ‘play’ to mean the opposite of serious work. The idiom ‘child’s play’ refers to something that is easy and trivial. Often grown-ups use the ‘P word’ to dismiss what children are doing as unimportant – when it’s time to tidy up or do some ‘real’ learning. Yet, for kids, play is challenging and important: it’s how they learn.

In his presentations on the development of the brain Nathan Wallis underscores the important message that “play isn’t a precursor to ‘real’ learning. [Rather], it is a method of evolving that facilitates higher intelligence.”

To understand why play is vital, it is important to first get a handle on the neurosequential development of the brain – how it is built from the bottom up, with the development of different ‘brains’ taking centre stage at different times.

  • The development of Brain 1, the brain stem, takes centre stage from 0-6 months, with Brain 2, the centre of movement and coordination, developing the most from six months to two years of age.
  • Brain 3, the limbic system or emotional brain, “comes online” between 18 months and two years. Until they are around the age of seven or eight, Brain 3 is in control: dictated principally by their feelings, young children see the world quite differently from Mum and Dad, who have fully mature brains.
  • Finally, Brain 4, the frontal cortex, moves into centre-stage development when a child is around the age of seven or eight. “Everything that makes you brainy, plus everything that makes you a nice person happens in Brain 4,” explains Nathan.

As Nathan says, “you can’t skip the stages”. One of his key messages for parents is that it is important that the needs of the emotional brain (Brain 3) are met if a child is to develop key dispositions like creativity, perseverance and resilience, and so access the higher executive functions of their frontal cortex (Brain 4).

And how are these needs met? Through responsive, loving and empathic relationships, and through opportunities for free play.

Rather than dismissing children’s play as unimportant, or taking over and making it
part of an adult’s agenda for learning, grown-ups need to understand a few things about play, says Nathan.

The key word is “free”, he says: that is, “child-initiated, child-led play that evolves without the imposition of an adult’s agenda or purpose. It is about the process, not some predetermined outcome.”

Open-ended, free play enables children to follow their own thought processes and to sustain their attention and focus, he says – both of which are fundamental for brain development. When being taught numbers or words, a child might sustain their focus for one or two minutes. Yet, when pretending to be a hairdresser, they might easily sustain their focus for an hour or more.

Operating as we do in our frontal cortex (our rational brain), grown-ups tend to focus on order – don’t mix the Lego and Playmobil; on time – we have to be out the door in half an hour; on safety (avoiding accidents) – that is too high, you’ll fall; and on answers and outcomes (avoiding failure) – that is the wrong shape, try this one.

It is fair to say that free play can threaten these objectives – especially as we watch the products of a day’s play spreading throughout the house. However, a more fundamental problem some adults have with free play is their belief that it is not ‘real’ learning.

Nathan challenges our thinking around ‘real’ learning, noting our cultural preoccupation with the “early attainment of cognitive skills” in young children – naming all the colours, identifying letters, counting to 20…. “It’s not that literacy and numeracy aren’t important,” he emphasises. “They’re wonderful – when they are embedded in child-led free play for children under the age of seven. The problem is that focusing primarily on numeracy and literacy when a child is under seven can mean that the developing brain isn’t getting what it really needs.”

Focusing on a narrow set of learning objectives, we may be blinkered to the stuff that really matters in the long run: how our kids relate to others, their creativity and their perception of themselves as learners – all of which develop naturally through self-initiated, self-directed free play, says Nathan.

Naturally, we may worry that our children will fall behind, or not be ‘school ready’, if we stop explicitly teaching them their letters and numbers. Fear not, says Nathan: if we meet the needs of our children at the stage of neurodevelopment they are at (and let them play!), then our kids will easily pick up these cognitive skills later on.

“A child who knows their alphabet at the age of three or four may have better literacy skills than their peers at age six, but the advantage doesn’t stay with them,” says Nathan. “For most kids, the advantage disappears in the first year of school” – which means, by the end of the first year, the other kids have caught up.

“We can very accurately predict future outcomes for young children – and it has nothing to do with the alphabet,” says Nathan. “It all comes down to their disposition about themselves as a learner: what really matters for a child under seven is how clever he thinks he is – how he feels about learning.”

To illustrate, Nathan presents the picture of two kids. Child A (five years) has “early cognitive attainment”, knowing his numbers to 100 and his alphabet. He has been brought up in an environment where he has been extended: when he has shown Mum that he can count to 100, she has tended to say “great, and what comes next?” When he has got the wrong answer, he has been told the correct one. The message he has received is that he is not quite competent enough.

Child B has been brought up in a child-led, free-play environment, and frankly he would sooner be out building huts or riding his bike than practising his numbers. He loves stories and imaginary play, but he doesn’t really care about writing his name. When Child B is asked about himself as a learner he responds, “I’m great: I keep trying and work it out, or I just ask Mum and Dad and they help me.” Statistically, says Nathan, Child B is far more likely to get a degree, and far less likely to develop depression and anxiety.

Contrary to expectations, failure doesn’t make a child develop a negative disposition about himself as a learner. In fact, failure (and trying again) is fundamental to the (free) play process.

When it comes to play, it is not the outcome that matters, but the process. Nathan explains that “creativity is the capacity to generate different solutions,” and it goes hand-in-hand with dispositions such as perseverance and resilience. Nathan talks about making a “waste-of-time Lego tower” – through the process of failing and trying new strategies, the child develops creativity.

Yet, if the well-intentioned parent ‘helps’ by continually telling them, there’s no way that’ll work, the message that the child receives is that he isn’t competent. As Nathan says, right and wrong answers [when a child is surrounded by these] thwart creativity, and with this the development of dispositions like perseverance and resilience.

Free play does not by definition exclude adults from being involved. Far from it, says Nathan.  The best sort of free play occurs, he says, when an interested, responsive adult is there to lend support, but doesn’t take over.

Standing back and leaving kids to it has its merits, says Nathan – who often extols the benefits of allowing children to be bored and create their own fun. But it is best to be there to offer assistance, without leading them. Through playing alongside a trusted adult, the child’s sense of agency is validated as they test theories and solve problems, but they also know that they have support when they need it. Good early childhood teachers know when to jump in, he says.

The challenge for us as parents? To offer assistance and support – I am here if you need help, love – but to refrain from taking over (or getting cross), even as we register the imminent collapse of the Lego tower and, infuriatingly, the need to start from square one.

Free play is an open-ended, child-led process where the child is in charge of the play. It is not ‘free’ play if an adult continually problem-solves for the child, or imposes their agenda on or interpretation of what’s happening.

Te Whāriki

Te Whāriki is the curriculum for early childhood education in New Zealand. It’s a social-emotional curriculum which aligns with the research that tells us that: the development of the social and emotional brain takes centre stage between the ages of two and seven years; that the development of this brain is critical in terms of future outcomes for children; and that “respectful, reciprocal and responsive relationships” (‘TW’), as well as opportunities for free play, are fundamental to its development. “Te Whāriki is  the most robust and research-based early childhood curriculum I have ever seen,” says Nathan.

Founded on the following aspirations for children – that they “grow up as competent and confident learners and communicators, healthy in mind, body, and spirit, secure in their sense of belonging and in the knowledge that they make a valued contribution to society” – Te Whāriki does not prescribe what teachers/kaiako must teach and children must learn.

Rather, Te Whāriki acknowledges that children “learn by engaging in meaningful interactions with people, places and things” (‘TW’), and focuses on promoting the “dispositions” that are valuable for supporting lifelong learning, such as “courage and curiosity and trust and playfulness.”

If Nathan has one criticism of this document it is that recent changes to Te Whāriki, which place more emphasis on literacy and numeracy, represent a “top-down imposition that actually downgrades Te  Whāriki  overall, and makes it less in line with international research. Literacy and numeracy are only wonderful when they are embedded in child-led free play for children under seven.”

Neuroscience educator, Nathan Wallis is determined to support parents and educators to get their heads around the fact that child-led free play drives the development of children’s brains.


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