The concern of many researchers is this: decreased play in childhood results in children who are emotionally and socially stunted, potentially resulting in significant problems later in life.  

Today I want to bring to your attention the fact that a lack of physical play in childhood might not only lead to a person growing up overweight due to sedentary behaviour – it may also lead them to becoming socially maladapted to the modern world. 

What is play? 

Play is something which we view as a kind of frivolous activity done in the name of fun, but that’s not really what it is. Many things are fun – watching a good movie, going on a rollercoaster, even reading a book – but these are not the same as play.  

Play is, at its core, an evolved exploratory occupation which aids in the development of many social and emotional traits. Almost all social animals play – dogs, apes, dolphins and even rats. In fact, if you take a rat in a lab and deprive it of play, it will become agitated and in later life show neurophysiological and neurochemical impairments which are reflected in behavioural abnormalities linked with reduced cortical development. These abnormalities include an inability to regulate aggression. 

The reason for this is somewhat simple in principle. The genome of an animal contains all of the raw information required to create the incredibly complex brain which that animal is born with, but it could never even come close to having all of the information required to give an infant the social abilities it will require in adulthood, seeing as those social requirements are often evolving and somewhat fluid. No, the brain is created ‘blank’ and development helps shape it into what it needs to be.  

Play, as it turns out, is one of the key drivers for this development. Play fighting and rough and tumble play are present in many animals, but to illustrate the complexity of this even in what we might consider to be non-intelligent creatures we will turn again to rat models. Rats will play fight, nip and pin each other down in a dramatic representation of a dominance struggle, but neither rat is showing genuine signs of aggression. The nips are gentle, and nobody ever deals a truly damaging blow.  

More than this, while the larger and stronger rat can ‘win’ at any time, it will allow the smaller rat to claim victory on occasion, submitting and showing its neck, because this enables the animals to maintain the play dynamic. If the larger rat dominates all of the time, the smaller stops engaging and then the larger rat has lost its ‘friend’, and so it learns to regulate its behaviour for the betterment of its social interactions.  

What all of this shows you is that, even at the level of rats, play allows animals to develop social and emotional regulation. They learn how to interact with each other in a manner which is aggressive enough to be exciting, but not so aggressive that it is actually dangerous. They also learn a sense of fair play, because this allows repeated engagement in the rewarding activity, rather than simple dominance which leads to opportunities to take part in the activity being withdrawn.  

We see this in humans, too. A child will be playing with a parent and may hit them, retreat and see what happens. Over time the child will hit harder and harder in an exploratory behaviour, seeking boundaries. As soon as the strikes go beyond what the adult is happy with the play will stop, and from this the child understands the levels to which this is acceptable.  

Children do the same with each other, playing in a manner which becomes increasingly aggressive, finding a point at which other children stop engaging in the play, and then learn to regulate their actions in order to maintain the dynamic which they find intrinsically rewarding.  

Engagement in play from a young age increases the rapidity at which a rat achieves full frontal lobe regulatory functions, and therefore achieves what could be considered socialisation. With frontal lobe regulatory function being intact, the animal is able to ignore aggressive, harmful or other urges and drives in order to maintain social order, and the same thing happens in humans.  

How important is play? 

Children who are deprived of the opportunity to play are more likely to become anti-social or criminally prone adults. Not only this, but the social development of children including the following skills; cooperation, sharing and regulation of physical and verbal aggression are all developed through play. 

Children who are not ‘fun to be around’ often wind up having fewer friends, lower self-esteem and a much less engaging social life. Bearing in mind that socialisation is the backbone of interpersonal relationships later in life, including healthy relationships with a partner, we can see how these early developmental stages can have large impacts on the quality of life that an individual has. 

Finally, the ability to develop a sense of competitiveness and fair play while maintaining regulation over aggression will be crucial for any adult seeking a powerful career, or simply wanting to avoid fighting in bars.  

If children do not participate in play fighting, or have the opportunities to make up and enjoy games and to engage in sports at a young age it could be leaving a generation which is poorly socially and emotionally regulated.  

We need to facilitate play in children to enable them to develop their social skills and emotion regulation so they are able to integrate with others within their classroom environment and promote positive social experiences. 

Written by 

Emma Davies