Every day there’s a new headline about bullying or acts of violence that leave people wondering how to prevent these headlines from happening. In the days afterward, experts offer a wide range of solutions. I’d like to suggest a long term solution that starts with our children and their first years of play.

“The experience of play changes the connections of the neurons at the front end of your brain,” says Sergio Pellis, a researcher at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada. “Without play experience, those neurons aren’t changed.” It is those changes in the pre-frontal cortex during childhood that help wire up the brain’s executive control center, which has a critical role in regulating emotions, making plans and solving problems, according to Pellis. He adds that play is what prepares a young brain for life, love and even schoolwork. He is not the only one. Researchers like Jaak Panksepp at Washington State University believe that “the function of play is to build pro-social brains, social brains that know how to interact with others in positive ways.”

Somewhere along the way, in the U.S. we have become obsessed with academics and the idea of structured play, from enrolling children at an early age in competitive sports or classes or organizing play dates. Whatever happened to sending the kids out to play with the neighbors’ kids and calling them in for dinner?  What happened to kindergarten that involved merely putting puzzles together, singing, playing pretend and recess? Without the open-ended play that many of us “older folks” were allowed to have, our children are not gaining the very experiences necessary to wire their brains for positive interactions.

We need to bring back play as mandatory.  ASTRA “leads the way through play” and it is so much of what we are all about.  Let’s work at getting our future generations back on track.  Play more and your brain will automatically be thinking and learning. Finland was recently in the news for embracing this idea of play in their educational system. Their education system purposely focuses on open-ended learning and makes play the most important part of their kindergarten program. The article reports that Finnish students are scoring close to or at the top of all of their recent academic benchmarks.

Incorporating play doesn’t have to start with overhauling the education system. It can start with freeing up one hour during the week for unstructured play. Find suggestions for incorporating unstructured play in your child’s everyday at the ASTRA website under “Play and Learn.” Here are some additional articles on the importance of play in child development:

How Free Play Can Define Kids’ Success
Free, unstructured play is crucial for children to build the skills they’ll need to be happy, productive adults.

Harnessing Children’s Natural Ways Of Learning
At a school where free play and exploration are encouraged, children can educate themselves under the right conditions.

WarfieldBIO1Sue Warfield is the Director of Member Relations at ASTRA. With more than 30 years of experience in the retail and toy business, Sue offers insight into industry trends and tips and works to connect the retailers, sales representatives, manufacturers and affiliates in the specialty toy retailing arena. Contact Sue at swarfield@astratoy.org.