Susan Ochshorn, a specialist in early childhood education, demonstrates in this post (as she has before, and will again) that play is crucial for the healthy mental development of young children. Ochshorn is the founder of ECE Policyworks and a tireless advocate for childhood.
Ochshorn cites the research of Deborah Leong to explain the importance of play.
“Self-regulation, as the non-neuroscientists among us refer to executive function, has to do with the development of the prefrontal cortex, and influences both cognition and emotions. Leong compares this “muscle,” which grows exponentially in the years from birth to five, to a traffic controller, allocating mental resources to focus on the tasks at hand. Here are the three components of executive function:
Inhibitory self-control, which allows children to delay gratification, and to stay on task, even when they’re bored;
Working memory, which enables kids to take multiple perspectives and hold two strategies in mind at the same time; and
Cognitive flexibility, or the ability to adjust mental effort depending upon the task, and to pay attention when the task is challenging.
And here’s why it matters: Levels of executive function have been found to predict academic success better than IQ and social class. Moreover, self-regulation correlates with acquisition of literacy skills, improved teacher-child interactions, and relationships with other children. Emotional regulation is also linked to a child’s ability to control stress while learning. Unregulated children just can’t get down to the important business at hand, and they are becoming alarming statistics. Today, one out of 40 preschoolers is expelled, or three times the rate of K-12 expulsions. Class size, teacher-child ratios, duration of day, teacher credentials and education levels, as well as teacher stress have all been implicated in this growing phenomenon. Early childhood mental health consultation is increasingly seen—and indeed, welcome—as a viable strategy for changing this calculus. But it’s not enough.”
In short, children need to play, and our test-obsessed education system is reducing the available for play. This is not good for children or for the mental health of our troubled society.