Does Play Matter?

What if your children are malnourished and small for their age? What if you live in a developing country where most children are living in extreme poverty? You would feel defeated; it would be hard for you to see a way out for your children. You would worry that they would duplicate your fate instead of exceeding your meager circumstances. What if we told you that the answer to helping your kids thrive was to play with them? What if we told you that if you just played with them and talked to them about everyday household objects -- nothing fancy, no spinning and blinking electronic toys -- your child would succeed despite the odds? A paper published in Science magazine by a group of economists and psychologists, and then discussed on NPR provide the story of this amazing project.

Set in Jamaica, health care workers went to children's homes and showed moms how to play with their kids. "See this cup? It can do so many things! You can drink your porridge from it. You can turn it upside down and put something on it. And you can pretend that it is a telephone. Hello grandma!" Sound familiar? This is the kind of thing many families do all the time. Up until the digital era (but that is for another blog!), parents would be having such conversations with their kids often. But when we are surrounded by such conversations, they seem like "no big deal," and we don't think much about them.

Scientists like us have been doing the research to show that kids' play with parents is crucial for their development. While there are gobs of data to support this point, the studies conducted in the United States were always with populations where it was a matter of degree. Many families play with their kids.

In Jamaica in 1986-1987 when the study was first conducted, infants and toddlers were observed doing very little -- families couldn't afford toys and people didn't appreciate the importance of talking to their kids. Because food was a resource in short supply, these children were growth-stunted and behind in brain development. After two years of visits by home health care workers, these children were followed over 20 years. All the home health workers did was to work with mothers showing them how to interact with their kids during a one-hour play session.

Children in the play group did better than the kids in the control group who were just given more food but no play instruction. Children in the play group had higher IQs, better self-control, and lower aggression. They were already earning 25 percent more than the kids in the food group and that number was destined to grow. And best of all, children in the play group now looked indistinguishable from children in a non-stunted control group that received no play sessions.

After reading this study, people can no longer say, "It's just play." Play can no longer be a four-letter word, as it is for some who don't appreciate its value. For something that seems as common as air and water to show us it matters, we need to see what happens in situations where it is absent. The kids in the group who got "just play" -- not even extra food -- were the kids who overcame the effects of malnutrition and stunted brain growth to triumph.

Play. It's good for you and it's good for your kids. And it's especially good when you play with your kids. Play! Enjoy! And think about the good you're doing for your children's brains!