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The Importance of Play

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“Play is so important to optimal child development that it has been recognized by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as a right of every child,” writes Kenneth Ginsburg of the American Academy of Pediatrics in a clinical report. “Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive and emotional strength.”

Unfortunately, today's child feels tremendous societal pressure for faster academic advancement, which reduces much needed playtime. A 1989 survey by the National Association of Elementary School Principals shows that 96% of school systems had at least one recess period. A similar survey from 1999 says that only 70% of kindergarten kids had a recess period. For kids between ages four and six, that’s bad news.

Fortunately, these statistics are not unknown to educators and policy wonks. So our children may likely get the quantity and quality of play they need and deserve. But what about adults?

War and Other Adult Games

There are several reasons why children play. Playing gives kids the chance to be the boss. When they play pretend, they take on grownup roles—a doctor, lawyer, or (my personal favorite) chef—and simulate real-life circumstances.

Playing in groups gives children opportunities to build self-esteem, communication, and interpersonal skills. It allows them to practice dealing with emotions, both their own and those of others.

These are the same reasons why adults should play. Those who do so consistently and well shall reap quantifiable benefits. Let’s start with an obvious example, war games.

War games are either field exercises, in which two opposing forces rehearse full-scale military maneuvers, or simulations, in which no physical mobilization takes place but the use of tactics are modeled using a computer. In either case, the generals and troops participating in the war games learn new role-specific skills and softer traits, such as teamwork and strategic thinking. And they learn all that in a relatively safe, risk-free environment that encourages risk-taking and innovative thinking.

Games are particularly useful in the military because (1) opportunities to learn firsthand are few, and (2) the extent of loss from failure in actual combat situations is great. There are, however, other situations in which game-playing should also be encouraged.

While in most work environments there are more than enough opportunities for hands-on learning, employees tend to be highly risk-averse. This can be a significant deterrent to success in industries that are innovation-driven. Companies like Google have realized this.

At Google, promising employees are allowed to use 20% of their work hours on a project of their choice, building ‘recess’ back into the work culture. Known as ‘free time’ or ‘20% time,’ this play period has produced many of Google’s most successful products, including AdSense and Google News.

It’s pretty simple really. If every project an employee works on is judged using the same strict standard, then who would want to risk career advancement by trying out new ways of doing things? What has worked in the past is, after all, most likely to work in the future. At least in the short term.

The only issue is practice kills innovation. That’s a real problem.

Play at Work and at Home

Any enterprise that wants to teach employees new skills or encourage risk-taking should consider using games or introducing company-sponsored playtime. Beyond that, however, adults who want to learn new skills should also take the initiative and introduce more playtime into their home lives! Don’t worry. This isn’t something too innovative. It’s already happening today.

Statistics from the Entertainment Software Association tells us that 75% of heads of households play computer and video games. The average computer gamer is older than in the past. Even at the extreme end of the age spectrum, gaming has caught on.

Data from 2004 reveals that, among individuals age 50 or older, 19% play games. That’s up from only 10% in 1999. Games like Puzzle Quest and Sudoku have become particularly popular among the oldies. Seniors believe that these games help keep them sharp; and they’re right! A University of Illinois at Urbana-Campaign study shows improved memory, reasoning, and multitasking among 60–70 year olds after one month of playing the real-time strategy game Rise of Nations.

So, how about a quick stroll down to the nearest Toys R’Us? It may do you some good and will make your kids quite happy too.

Print ed: 04/10


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