Friday, June 23, 2006

Playing: Important Workout for Our Brains

Last night as I was surfing channels, I came upon a PBS special, "The Power of Play." The documentary gave examples of how important play is in the cognitive and social development of animals and made several critical points, based on extensive research by experts and scientists, who have studied each of the animal groups discussed. Animals who play the most are the most intelligent animals. The frolicking dolphins, playful dogs, scampering chimpanzees, and cuddly sea otters were shown as specific examples. One of the most interesting was the highly brainy crow. In this example, the crow needed to break open nuts to be able to eat them. He was close to a street with heavy traffic. He tried dropping them so that cars ran over them but found it too dicey to scoot among cars to get the goodies. He therefore figured out that dropping the nut just before the cars stopped at the traffic light would give him enough time to swoop down without interference and pick up his snack. Amazing! And crows love to play, too, as anyone knows who's had the ill fortunate to have them descend on a garden.

I am reminded of the many studies that show how important play is for children, whose brains develop mightily as they interact with other children while playing with each other. In these play times, they have the freedom to try new behaviors and figure out which ones work and which ones don't, without a judgmental adult instructing them every minute. Their brains develop, their social skills and friendships grow, and critical lifelong skills are forged, a foundation for life.

I am also reminded of the research on adults at the other end of the age spectrum. The Bronx Aging Study, a longitudinal study of almost 500 adults over more than 20 years, showed that those who engaged in stimulating leisure-time activities, like dancing and challenging, interactive games, had a 65-75% probability of remaining mentally sharp as compared to those who did not "play" on a regular basis. People naturally gravitate to what's fun and entertaining and challenging. Our brains need the exercise and we like the feeling of being totally absorbed in an activity where we won't be judged, we won't get a grade, and we aren't looking for a raise. We're just having fun. As we move through our very serious and ambitious lives, I hope we remember to give our children, and ourselves, the power of play.

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