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How Play Benefits Kids’ Brain Development

A Decline of Academic Skills and Creativity

Play is vital to brain development. It’s one of the ways kids learn problem-solving, conflict resolution and creativity— the skills they need to succeed as adults, but more and more studies are showing that those skills are declining for America’s kids.

In 2012, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a worldwide assessment that examines nationwide scholastic performance, showed that students in the US rank 30th in Math, 23rd in science, and 20th in reading. Additionally, almost 20% of US students do not reach the baseline level of proficiency in problem-solving, lacking the skills to think ahead or respond to unfamiliar settings.

Research conducted by Kyung Hee Kim, a professor of education at the College of William and Mary, documents another troubling issue. By analyzing scores on the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking, Kim found that creativity among American school children have been on the decline for the last 25 years. In Professor Kim’s analysis, she stated:

…children have become less emotionally expressive, less energetic, less talkative and verbally expressive, less humorous, less imaginative, less unconventional, less lively and passionate, less perceptive, less apt to connect seemingly irrelevant things, less synthesizing, and less likely to see things from a different angle.

Psychology Today

At the 2013 LEGO Idea Conference on April 9, LEGO Foundation CEO Randa Grob-Zakhary gave a speech on creativity. She discussed the shocking drop in creativity and how, as a society, we are losing out on ways to tackle the important problems. She talked about why creativity sits at the very heart of problem-solving, and how by helping people to be more creative can help us all to unlock our full potential. Watch her presentation.

Play is Critical to a Great Education

As global competition increases, it is imperative that children develop a skill-set relevant to today’s workforce and are able to approach challenges with creative solutions to successfully navigate our complex, ever-changing world. Critical thinking and collaboration are integral to the jobs of the future, and balanced and active play helps to develop these 21st century skills.

Elementary school principals also overwhelmingly believe recess has a positive impact — not only on the development of students’ social skills, but also on achievement and learning in the classroom.

We believe play should be part of a well-rounded school day. That is, kids need to read, write, do math, as well as practice problem-solving, teamwork, and creativity.

We know play also helps children adjust to the school setting, enhances their learning readiness, and indirectly contributes to children learning more hard skills in school by mitigating behavioral problems and increasing academic engagement. Schools without recess face increased incidents of classroom behavioral problems, which detract from learning time. Studies show play also may increase children’s capacity to store new information, as their cognitive capacity is enhanced when they are active.

Tony Wagner, of Harvard University, cites the combination of play, passion, and purpose, rather than the carrot-and-stick motivation of most classrooms, that best develops the discipline and perseverance required to be a successful innovator. We agree and advocate that play be woven into class instruction to engage students and help them do their best.