Study Skills
Deep Play Helps Teenagers Learn
Deep Play Helps Teenagers Learn
8 min read
By Kathryn Rawson
Deep Play Helps Teenagers Learn

When I think back to the last time I 'played' I remember playing catch with my brother in the garden, trying (and failing miserably) to climb trees, and always choosing the dog token in emotionally-charged games of Monopoly. I haven't played Monopoly in over twenty years nor has a tree ever enticed me to climb since. I would however still choose the dog token.

The way we think about play has recently begun to change since an emerging discipline of 'play science' has gained traction. Dr. Stuart Brown, psychiatrist and founder of the National Institue for Play, is renowned globally as a 'play scientist'. His book, aptly named Play, uses the latest research in neuroscience, psychology, and social science to consider the essential role of play in learning, creativity, intelligence, and problem-solving.

The research indicates that play, rather than something whimsical reserved for children, is integral to the success and well-being of children and adults alike. That's why, at Coachbit, we encourage our students to play just as much as we encourage them to focus or study. The one should not, and cannot, be done without the other.

What is 'Deep Play'?

Dr. Brown explains that play has seven properties. We can use these to both define and understand play:

  1. It is purposeless -- it is not necessary for survival.

  2. It is voluntary -- real play cannot be forced, we choose to play.

  3. It is fun -- there is an inherent attraction to play.

  4. It causes us to lose track of time -- hours pass without us noticing.

  5. It causes us to leave our self-consciousness -- we are not aware of the way we look or what we are constantly thinking.

  6. It causes us to unconsciously gather insights relevant to other areas of life -- during play our minds often wander to other areas of life such as work or our personal lives.

  7. It is rewarding - we want to continue.

Playing With a Purpose

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Silicon Valley consultant and Stanford Scholar, is another influential supporter of play. His book, Rest, promotes the concept of active rest which he deems key to productivity and innovation. His work challenges the age-old binary of rest and work and explores the benefits of naps, play, and exercise.

Pang introduces the concept of 'deep play', that is, play activities that are mentally absorbing and require skills to overcome problems. In most cases, they are both physically and mentally challenging. Shallow play, in comparison, refers to those play activities which are not mentally absorbing -- such as watching a series or sunbathing.

Several notable people adopted deep play. Winston Churchill was an avid painter. Albert Michelson, a Nobel award winner responsible for measuring the speed of light, played the violin. Biophysicist Britton Chance, who played a role in developing the diagnostic tool for breast cancer, was an Olympic gold medallist in sailing.

With both Pang and Brown's conceptualizations of play in mind, we can begin to uncover different forms of play both in the lives of adults and children. For children, it may be a little more obvious, but for adults, it may take some thought. A great example is rock climbing. Rock climbing combines both physical stamina and mental stimulation. The brain is actively involved in tactical and strategic thinking as you plan your next move and give your quads the workout of their lives. For others, play may be fishing, running, playing a musical instrument, scrapbooking, or surfing.

The Importance of Play for Teenagers

Play is inherently fun, but serves a far greater evolutionary purpose than just entertainment. That's why the act of play activates the nucleus accumbens -- the reward center of the brain. Its by-products, learning, creativity, social connection, and problem-solving, were critical to the evolution of our ancestors. As Dr. Brown explains, we are 'built to play and built by play.'

During adolescence, our brains transform more rapidly than in any other period of our life. Connections are being made and neuroplasticity is taking place. That's why during adolescence, play is more important than ever.

The practice of deep play or engaging playful behavior is intricately connected to the cognitive and emotional development of the teenage brain. Playing makes our brains more efficient as it enhances cortical connections in the brain. Cortical connections are the nerves that connect the different areas of the cerebral cortex. The cerebral cortex is responsible for higher-level cognitive processes such as learning, decision-making, memory, and emotion. Therefore, play directly leads to brain development -- especially in adolescents.

The cerebellum is another region of the brain that grows rapidly during adolescence and this growth requires both stimulation and flexibility. Research shows that the cerebellum is stimulated by play. As brain function increases, so does its ability to engage in more complex forms of play and the play cycle continues. Play reinforces connections in the brain and ultimately optimizes the process of learning.

According to Panksepp, Estonian-American Neuroscientist at Washington State University "Play is quintessentially capable of activating the very best that the [brain] is capable of." It makes sense then, that those schools that have longer recess periods in between classes exhibit higher academic performance than those with shorter recess time.

Play not only stimulates cognitive growth in children but also builds resilience, empathy, and a sense of belonging. Group play during childhood and adolescence also serves an evolutionary purpose as it builds social connections and teaches social skills such as emotional self-regulation. Through play, teenagers learn to deal with feelings of frustration, anticipation, and disappointment.

Play amongst children, and even adults, often consists of competition. Competition is often confused with contests. The two concepts are vastly different according to Dr. Brown. Competition according to Brown is the act of 'testing one's skills against the skill of another, without the necessity of domination.' Contest, however, requires a winner and often has an exclusionary quality to it.

When observing how animals, particularly high primates, play in the wild it was competition and not contest that Brown observed. The stronger animal would naturally handicap himself in order for the weaker animal to catch up and the game to continue. If you've ever watched two dogs chasing one another you'll notice this behavior. When one dog catches the other, they do not dominate or pin the other down, rather they take turns in chasing.

Encouraging Play in Teenagers

1. Promote Individual Play

Hobbies and sports are a great starting point for teenagers to engage in deep play. These can be done in group settings or individually. If their schools do not provide classes or teams, there are many community groups and teams available.

It can sometimes be beneficial to think out of the box when it comes to play. Getting your teenager to begin a training program with their dog, for example, can be both challenging and fulfilling on many levels. Rock climbing, as mentioned earlier, is also a great activity for mental and physical stimulation. Both of these examples will help build confidence, teach discipline and promote innovation.

Remember, play should be satisfying and enjoyable. If an activity does not meet that play principle, simply move on and find another that makes your teenager lose the sense of time.

2. Play as a Family

Play is a practice that will not only benefit teenagers and children but the whole family. Have a conversation as a family and list all of your individual favorite types of play. Make a Venn Diagram and you'll quickly see where your favorites overlap. If you all enjoy hiking, fishing or reading then implement those as a family. Family vacations are a great place to spend time intentionally playing together.

3. Technology and Play

Technology-based play, such as video games, is probably what most teens would prefer to spend their time doing. In most cases, these do not meet Pang's requirements for Deep Play. They are not physically and mentally engaging and often lead to a sedentary lifestyle. Video games include little real-life interaction and recent research suggests that those who play excessive video games show a delay in the development of empathy, trust, and concern for others.

Technology and gaming should not be written off completely though. Jane McGonigal, author of Reality is Broken: Why Games Makes Us Better and How They Can Change the World, claims that less than 20 hours of gaming a week can actually have positive benefits. McGonigal argues that some games increase levels of social cooperation while others promote problem-solving and cognitive skills. It's important to remember however, that should gaming exceed 20 hours a week, the positive benefits quickly turn negative.

Final Thoughts

Play is fundamental to the brain development of adults and children alike. Researchers, many of whom have dedicated much of their careers to play science, have warned that the suppression of play can have devastating consequences on our physical and mental wellbeing. At Coachbit we believe that the ability to play is a necessary life skill to be learned and fostered. Play is not only important for learning and cognitive development but helps raise teenagers who are empathetic, resilient, and self-assured.

Recommended Resources

Perry Else, The Value of Play

Sergio Pellis and Vivian Pellis, The Playful Brain: Venturing to the Limits of Neuroscience

Stuart Brown, Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang,_ Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less_

Jane McGonigal, Reality is Broken: Why Games Makes Us Better and How They Can Change the World

teenagerslifestyleroutinebrainneuroscienceadolescencedaily habitssuccessperformancesportslearningfocusvideo gameshobbiesplayinggaming

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