Kids should get free rein to play, says researcher

American researcher Stuart Brown would argue that play is anything but trivial. ST FILE
American researcher Stuart Brown would argue that play is anything but trivial. ST FILE

Ability to do so throughout life helps 'determine success and happiness'

PURPOSELESS, yes. Fun, yes. But American researcher Stuart Brown would argue that play is anything but trivial.

The psychiatrist who founded the National Institute for Play in California says play is a biological drive in humans and a person's ability to play throughout life is the single most important factor in determining his success and happiness.

Dr Brown will be talking all about play at The Straits Times Education Forum on June 27.

Whenever he gives a talk on the importance of play in early childhood development, he inevitably gets asked if video games count. He said he understands parents' concerns, as children spend many hours playing these games instead of being outside.

For sure, he is not against playing video games and said it is better than watching television.

"Kids often get together to play them - and many of the newer types depend on players interacting with each other online. Plus, a lot of the new video games require you to get up and move around," he told The Straits Times.

However, he also noted that research has shown that actual play, with interaction, is better for brain development.

"Research shows that three-dimensional movement in space turns on associational circuits in the brain more than screen space does, particularly in young kids," he said.

He warned that video games stop being play when they become addictive and compulsive.

"Basically we play because we want to and because we like how we feel when we are playing. But when the games take over, when they are so compelling we can't stop, that is a destructive, addictive thing."

He is also against parents hovering over their children at playgrounds, and urges parents to allow their children to play freely.

"Parents have to allow the kids themselves to negotiate the rules, who wins and loses. The brain builds new circuits in the prefrontal cortex to help it navigate these complex social interactions," he said.

Dr Brown will be joined at the forum by University of Chicago paediatric surgeon Dana Suskind and Mrs Carmee Lim, mentor principal at MindChamps Holdings.

Dr Suskind started a programme to close the language gap for disadvantaged children in Chicago. Her programme, The Thirty Million Words Initiative, encourages parents to provide a rich language environment for their children.

Thirty million words refers to a key finding in a landmark 1990s study which found that a child from a poor home would have heard 30 million fewer words by the age of four, compared with children whose parents are professionals.

Mrs Lim, a former principal of Raffles Girls' School and an ardent advocate of creative education, will explain how music and dance can help children develop more than just motor skills.

"It is related to brain growth and even the development of maths and speech skills," she said.

Philanthropic organisation Lien Foundation is the presenting sponsor of the forum, with POSB Bank as a partner. The Straits Times' inaugural education forum last year was attended by 300 parents. This year's forum will be held at the Raffles City Convention Centre. To register, go to forum-2015