Educational CyberPlayGround

Children Need to Play for Healthy Development


Fun Learning Games - play's the thing:
research shows learn the importance of laughter and play
to avoid teenage depression and burn out.

The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes
the classic anthology of nursery rhymes--over 500 rhymes, songs, nonsense jingles, and lullabies traditionally handed down to young children. Included are all of your favorites, ranging from "Yankee Doodle Came to Town" and "A Frog He Would A-Wooing Go" to "Baa, Baa, Black Sheep," Jack and Jill" and "Old Mother Hubbard." And complementing the rhymes are nearly a hundred illustrations, including reproductions of early art found in ballad sheets and music books, which highlight the development of children's illustrations over the last two centuries.
With each piece, Iona and Peter Opie introduced a wealth of information, noting the earliest known publications of the rhyme, describing how it originated, illustrating changes in wording over time, and indicating variations and parallels in other languages. Moreover, in the general introduction, the Opies discuss the different types of rhyme and the earliest published collections, and they address such questions as who was Mother Goose and whether or not individual rhymes originally portrayed real people.

People in the PlayGround: Children's Laureate Michael Rosen explores life in the playground today.
Fifty years ago, Iona and Peter Opie began their ground-breaking research on the games and songs, jokes and riddles, fights and friendships which fill the break-time of children up and down the country. Even in the 1950s, there were mounting anxieties about the lives of children and the effects of consumerism and the media. These anxieties have now grown to become one of the greatest concerns of modern British life. Michael Rosen has been presenting "A series of five programmes on children's play in school playgrounds, as part of an exploration of the work of Peter and Iona Opie." Experts include Georgina Boyes. Anyone interested in playground rhymes, clapping and skipping games.
Folklore: Playground rhymes on BBC Radio 4 there was a follow-up article in the Observer newspaper: People in the Playground Revisited

Alliance for Childhood discusses the benefits of play, as children really do need to run, jump and allow their active imaginations to run wild. Decades of research demonstrates that play is more than just fun and games because it boosts healthy development across a broad spectrum of critical areas (intellectual, social, emotional and physical). Yet in spite of this, more and more children are not engaging in the right sort of play. This doesn't seem to be the case in Germany, as each weekday, rain or shine, a group of children, ages three to six, walk into a forest outside Frankfurt to sing songs, build fires and roll around in the mud. To relax, they kick back on a giant "sofa" made of tree stumps and twigs, reports Mike Esterl for the Wall Street Journal (second link). Germany has about 700 "Waldkindergarten," or forest kindergartens,' in which children spend their days outdoors no matter the weather or what the calendar says. The schools are a throwback to the ideas of Friedrich Frobel, who opened the fist kindergarten more than 150 years ago. Frobel counseled that young children should play in nature, and be cordoned off from too many numbers and letters. Academic studies of the impact of these schools are still in their infancy, but some researchers believe Waldkindergarten kids exercise their imaginations more and are better at concentrating and communicating. However other studies indicate their writing skills are less developed and they are less adept at distinguishing colors, forms and sizes. Still, even though they mess around in the muck and the mud, the children appear to be sick less often. PLAY FACT SHEET PDF

subversion and play as resistance

In Protests, Syrians Find the Spark of Creativity By NEIL MacFARQUHAR
December 19, 2011
Excerpt: " [...] A few pranksters apparently took their furtive protests onto the streets — creating stunts, especially in Damascus, that bedeviled the government. For example, an amplifier hidden atop a building on a main square broadcast the recording of a Homs antigovernment demonstration. Security forces are said to have run around central Damascus madly trying to find the marchers.
Once, the capital's main fountains were dyed a bloody red. Another time, protesters painted scores of Ping-Pong balls with words like “Leave” and “Freedom” in red and blue ink, and then released them on a hill above Mr. Assad's house. A video shows them clattering down the cobblestones, and activists insist that frenzied security agents scoured the streets to collect them all.
The Syrian government turned down a request to interview Najah al-Attar, the vice president for cultural affairs, about the artistic outpouring. Many of these events are difficult to verify, because the government has admitted only a few foreign journalists into the country, and then only for a limited time. But a constant stream of creative videos has appeared on YouTube.
Among the latest is a 15-part series called “Top Goon: Diaries of a Little Dictator,” with English subtitles. It presents the crisis through four finger puppets, including “Beeshu,” a belittling nickname for Mr. Assad. With a beaky nose, protruding ears and a long, narrow face, the two-inch puppet captures the president's elongated visage.
In episode one, Beeshu dreams that the government has fallen, only to be reassured by his military aide, Shabih (which means thug), that 99 percent of the population still loves him. When Beeshu decides to resign anyway, the aide barks: “Are you crazy? Have you gone mad? Do you think that it's your decision?”

Is unhappiness a key to academic success? No credible learning or management theory suggests that fearful, unhappy or insecure people are more productive. Common sense and countless studies demonstrate that love is a better master than duty. For example, one popular yet wrong view of education suggests that school is a child's "job." This reduces learners to forced unpaid workers, as they do piecework in the name of higher standards, competitiveness and accountability. No learning theory suggests that fearful or insecure people are more productive, writes Gary Stager in the new issue of District Administration. Paradoxically, the same adults who destroyed the timeless liberal arts tradition in schools sacrificed many of those "standards" at the altar of accountability and unhappiness. If schools are failing, each school employee who advances such nonsense weakens support for public education and advances the pernicious curriculum of misery and helplessness.

On this episode of Tch Talks, Dr. Yoon Jeon Kim, a research scientist at MIT Teaching Systems Lab, and Louisa Rosenheck, a designer and researcher of educational technologies in the MIT Education Arcade, come together to discuss how thoughtful design of authentic, creative, and playful assessments can engage students, help them to learn and grow, and allow them an opportunity to demonstrate their skills and abilities in a more personalized and meaningful way.



The Hidden Life of Girls: Games of Stance, Status, and Exclusion.
By Marjorie Harness Goodwin. 2006. Blackwell Publishing. 320 pages. ISBN: 0-631-23424-1 (hard cover), 0-631-23425-X (soft cover). Reviewed by John H. McDowell, Indiana University
This book's author, Marjorie Goodwin, sets out to challenge a cluster of assumptions about how girls interact with one another, using empirical data drawn from close observation of girls at lunch and at play on school playgrounds, settings where they achieve "a local social order" (6) and exercise "children's agency" (245). The stereotypes she addresses have both a popular and scholarly currency, and hold that boys are assertive and girls are nurturing, that boys are concerned with justice and girls with harmony, that boys use direct means and girls indirect means to advance their purposes. By listening to what the girls have to say to one another, Goodwin finds ample evidence to question these assumptions. The girls she observes exercise female assertiveness, not only in managing their same-sex activities but also in their interaction with boys who attempt to join their games. In one celebrated instance, the girls triumph over the boys in an effort to redefine access to the playground soccer field.
The remedy for the sway of misguided conceptions about what little girls are made of is attending closely to actual sequences of talk among girls at play. Goodwin draws on her field research in several settings, including long-term study of African American working-class girls in Philadelphia, second-generation Spanish/English-speaking Central American and Mexican girls in downtown Los Angeles, and "a group of children of various ethnicities and social classes in a private, progressive school in southern California" (211). Goodwin has previously written up her Philadelphia research in her much-acclaimed 1990 study, He-Said-She-Said: Talk as Social Organization among Black Children. Data from all three field sites enter this study, but its primary source is the more recent California research, drawn from some eighty hours of video and audio taping of talk as Goodwin followed a clique of popular girls from the third through the sixth grade. Goodwin's perspective on these sessions of talk is shaped by the concerns and techniques of ethnomethodology (yes, Sachs, Garfinkel, Schegloff, and Jefferson ride again!), sociolinguistics, and conversation analysis mated with field ethnography, which she sees as "a powerful methodology for investigating how children ... become competent social actors by learning how to use language appropriately" (245). Inspired by Erving Goffman's uncanny feel for social life and focusing on "naturally occurring talk in context," Goodwin assesses "how positions or stances with respect to appropriate behavior are produced in the midst of particular activities (such as games, assessments, and stories)," "how claims to social positions are negotiated," and "how behavior of those who are felt to violate the local norms of the group is sanctioned" (5). The basic quest here is a search for how social values are constituted through talk, and how the moves in play activities both reflect and constitute a social system. The method is to present selected talk sequences and closely inspect them for evidence of social process.
Although The Hidden Life of Girls cannot be said to be a tract on children's folklore, it does hold much of interest for the folklorist, both for the performance genres it addresses--hand clapping, jumping rope, hopscotch, songs, ritual insults, "gossip dramas," pretend play, joking, and storytelling -- and for the way these play forms are theorized as arenas where peer-group social organization is accomplished. There is an appendix with the texts of several jump rope rhymes, but this book views the genres of children's folklore as resources for social interaction rather than as items of traditional culture. Folklorists will find that this approach offers many valuable insights as tokens of these familiar genres emerge in the crucible of social interaction. Moreover, our genres have consequence since they are seen to play a vital role in the development of moral judgment, the negotiation of social status, the marking of social boundaries, and the pursuit of social justice.
Let me briefly portray some of the riches folklorists can mine from the pages of this book. In reference to games like jumping rope and hopscotch, Goodwin observes a tension between the way players "treated the rules as resources" (36) and the way the witnesses to play served as judges, keeping close track of rule violations. She documents a deep concern with codes of fairness and justice and a propensity to engage in conflict behavior in order to enforce these codes, quite contrary to the claims of the reigning stereotype. Goodwin reminds us that the playground is "a place where social relationships based on power and status are played out" (250). As her sample for the hopscotch segment includes mostly Hispanic girls, she argues that her evidence defies "the essentialized stereotypes of Latinas as the hapless victims of a patriarchal culture" (72).
An examination of turn-taking in jumping rope illustrates that girls are quite capable of using direct commands as they sort out status relationships in the course of their play. When boys seek to join in the play, they are subject to the commands of female players until they acquire comparable expertise in the game. Goodwin concludes from this that "rather than being sex-linked, features of language use may be closely related to one's achieved position in a specific context" (155). She notes in storytelling, "the most ubiquitous of all speech events" (161), a use of topic management, participation control, and critical assessment, all geared to rendering and enforcing status hierarchies among the girls. In the realm of topic, for example, it matters if you can refer to up-scale stores and labels, and trips to exotic places. Even pretend play offers opportunities "to organize and orchestrate social roles" (186) in accordance with status hierarchies. Goodwin notes that the progressive school in southern California, ironically, is "a site where middle and upper class children teach one another how to put children of the working class in their place" (249). But a balance must be struck here, for Goodwin's research indicates that there is a price to pay for "putting on airs."
With regard to gossip, Goodwin notes that "negative talk about absent parties provides for vivid and varied forms of involvement" (209). But she finds in these sessions "processes through which girls come
to construct notions of normative value and articulate their notions of cultural appropriateness and moral personhood" (209). Goodwin touches on themes with policy implications, such as the need for free
play at recess and how to deal with bullying. A nice detail along the way is how the girls incorporate into their personal and ritual insults the vocabulary of their school's social justice curriculum and mimic the voice of the school psychologist in taunting an excluded playmate. In closing, I take note of a couple of uncertainties in the midst of this book's many valuable contributions.
One of these is methodological. Goodwin insists that her video and audio taping allowed her "to acquire a record of naturally occurring interaction" (4). But one may wonder about the effect of microphone, camera, and ethnographer and her crew on the behavior of the children. Goodwin tells us that she was able to remain aloof and neutral for the most part, but her talk segments exhibit several instances when the girls make explicit reference to these intrusive elements. One feature that does not enter into Goodwin's calculations but should, arguably, is the tendency for children to play to the camera.
The other uncertainty has to do with Goodwin's core postulate that society is formed through social interaction. As productive as this thesis can be, it can seem to disregard the more persistent features of social orders, the rules, regulations, and norms that shape social interaction. "Moral rules are emergent from local sequential contingencies of action" Goodwin tells us (190), and this assertion has its validity. But it seems equally true that people are often "playing by the rules" that have come to them through formal and informal instruction.

"The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds" October 9, 2006 [1]

Hurried lifestyle and heavy academic, extracurricular load taking toll; balance is needed.
A new report from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says free and unstructured play is healthy and - in fact - essential for helping children reach important social, emotional, and cognitive developmental milestones as well as helping them manage stress and become resilient.
The report, "The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds," is written in defense of play and in response to forces threatening free play and unscheduled time. These forces include changes in family structure, the increasingly competitive college admissions process, and federal education policies that have led to reduced recess and physical education in many schools. Whereas play protects children's emotional development, a loss of free time in combination with a hurried lifestyle can be a source of stress, anxiety and may even contribute to depression for many children, the AAP report states.
The report reaffirms that the most valuable and useful character traits that will prepare children for success come not from extracurricular or academic commitments, but from a firm grounding in parental love, role modeling and guidance.
Still, many parents are afraid to slow their pace for fear their children will fall behind. They feel like they are running on a treadmill, but worry they will not be acting as proper parents if they do not participate in a hurried lifestyle.
The report suggests that reduced time for physical activity may be contributing to the academic differences between boys and girls, as schools with sedentary learning styles become more difficult settings for some boys to navigate successfully.
Among the specific guidelines, the report suggests:

  • Emphasizing the benefits of "true toys", such as blocks and dolls, in which children use their imagination fully over passive toys that require limited imagination;
  • Supporting an appropriately challenging academic schedule for each child with a balance of extracurricular activities. This should be based on each child's unique needs and not on competitive community standards or need to gain college admissions;
  • Helping parents evaluate claims by marketers and advertisers about products or interventions designed to produce "super-children;"
  • Encouraging parents to understand that each young person does not need to excel in multiple areas to be considered successful or prepared to compete in the real world; Suggesting families choose childcare and early education programs that meet children's social and emotional developmental needs as well as academic preparedness.

The report recognizes that academic enrichment opportunities are vital for some children's ability to succeed academically, and that participation in organized activities promotes healthy youth development. "The challenge for society, schools, and parents is to strike the balance that allows all children to reach their potential, without pushing them beyond their personal comfort limits, and while allowing them personal free time," the report states. To help parents and teens develop resiliency and understand the role of stress in life, the AAP has created a Resiliency Web site.

Non-human evidence of Play for Healthy Development
and learning how to play "fairly"

Marc Bekoff gives non-human evidence for the innateness hypothesis, particularly with regards to the coyotes he observed to apparently learn how to play "fairly". What seems to be innate is the propensity to learn the species-typical play rules and signals, which are virtually always used honestly. Below are notes from a book chapter by him that should give a flavor of his argument
(page numbers shown at left margin):
Bekoff, Marc (2004). Wild justice, cooperation, and fair play: Minding manners, being nice, and feeling good. In Sussman, R. W., & Chapman, A. R. (Eds.), The origins and nature of sociality (pp. 53-80). New York, NY: Aldine de Gruyter.
54 research shows humans more generous and fair than game-theory and other models predict - Taken together, cross-cultural data suggest that there may well be an innate drive to be fair. - but what of other animals?
55 Whether or not individuals lose various 'freedoms' when balanced against the benefits that accrue when they work for the 'good of the group' is unknown and needs to be studied more carefully in various species.
57 In my view, cooperation is not merely always a by-product of tempering aggressive and selfish tendencies [combating Richard Dawkins' (1976) selfish genes] and attempts at reconciliation. Rather, cooperation and fairness can evolve on their own because they are important in the formation
58 and maintenance of social relationships.
altruism is not always simply selfishness disguised.
58 cites Preston & de Waal (2002) that empathy more widespread in animals than previously recognized - hungry rhesus wouldn't take food if doing so subjected another to electric shock, rats can act similarly
59 seems possible that it feels good to be fair, cooperative, forgiving, as brain imaging shows pleasure centers activated when people cooperate
60 5 S's of play = spirit, symmetry, synchrony, sacredness, soulfulness (immersed)
6 F's of play = flexibility, freedom, friendship, frolic, fun, flow emotions associated with play are joy and happiness - dopamine (and maybe serotonin and NE) involved in regulation of play - rats show increase dopamine activity when anticipating play
62 play signals are honest, rarely used to deceive
individuals in play engage in role-reversing and self-handicapping to reduce asymmetries and maintain play
63 David Sloan Wilson's Darwins's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society argues forgiveness is a complex biological adaptation - though his focus is on humans, can be extended to animals
64 during fun social play, individuals learn ground rules of what's acceptable to others (how hard can bite, etc.), how to negotiate agreement, how to resolve conflicts¦. transgressions/mistakes are forgiven and apologies accepted
65. All individuals need to play and there is a premium for playing fairly if one is to be able to play at all.
66. have found that coyote pups who do not play much are less tightly bonded to other members of their group and are more likely to strike out on their own (Bekoff 1977b). Life outside the group is much more risky than within it. In a seven-year study of coyotes living in the Grand Teton National Park outside Moose, Wyoming, we found that more than 55 percent of yearlings who drifted away from their social group died, whereas fewer than 20 percent of their stay-at-home peers did (Bekoff and Wells 1986).
67. levels of selection: believes closer scrutiny of social animals will show sense of fairness and morality benefits individuals and group as whole
71. long thought that wolf pack size regulated by food resources, e.g., one wolf can't take down elk or moose, or also need to defend food - but long-term research (Mech 1970) indicates social regulation: number of wolves who can live together in coordinated pack governed by number with whom can closely bond (social attraction factor) balanced against number with whom can tolerate competition (social competition factor) - codes of conduct and packs broke down when too many wolves
73. And the observation that play is rarely unfair or uncooperative is surely an indication that natural selection acts to weed out those who do not play by the rules.

The Brain's Funny Bone: Seinfeld, The Simpsons spark same nerve circuits
by John Travis Monday, November 18, 2002 From Science News, Vol. 162, No. 20, Nov. 16, 2002, p. 308.
Neuroscientists-normally a reserved group-were laughing at William M. Kelley's presentation. He wasn't upset, however. The researcher had just shown the scientists a clip from the sitcom Seinfeld to illustrate how his group investigates the brain's response to humor.
With the aid of Jerry Seinfeld and his friends, as well as the animated characters of the cartoon The Simpsons, Kelley and his colleagues have found that different brain regions spark with activity when a person gets a joke versus when he or she reacts to it.
"Humor is a significant part of what makes us unique as human beings," says Kelley, a neuroscientist at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. He presented his group's brain-imaging data last week at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in Orlando, Fla.
Despite humor's appeal, few researchers have studied its neural basis. Last year, a British group described the brain activity of people listening to real jokes and puns and to nonsense versions.
Seeking a more natural study of humor, Kelley's group initially had a dozen or so self-professed fans of Seinfeld watch an episode-the one in which George seeks a baldness remedy from China. Meanwhile, a magnetic resonance imaging machine continuously scanned their brains for nerve-cell activity.
Ultimately, the scientists analyzed the data for the few seconds before and after each joke, as indicated by the show's laugh track.
As a participant viewed something funny, regions of the brain's left hemisphere-the posterior temporal cortex and inferior frontal cortex-initially crackled with activity. Neuroscientists have previously associated these regions with resolving ambiguities, says Kelley.
A few seconds later, presumably as the person responded to the humor, brain regions called the insula and amygdala became active across both hemispheres of the brain. The insula plays a role in emotional sensations, while researchers usually link the amygdala to memory processing. "You tend to recall the funny bits" of a sitcom, notes Kelley.
Studying the brain's response to humor is a challenge, and Kelley's effort is innovative, says Ralph Adolphs of the University of Iowa College of Medicine in Iowa City. "It seems that actually watching a full-length episode [of a sitcom] is going to elicit humor in a more realistic, intense fashion than if you just read or hear a punch line in a lab," says Adolphs.
Concerned that the laugh track on Seinfeld influenced study volunteers' reactions, Kelley and his colleagues repeated their experiment with an episode of The Simpsons, which doesn't use recorded laughs. "We observed a near-identical pattern of [brain] activation," says Kelley.
Kelley, W.M., et al. 2002. The neural funny bone: Dissociating cognitive and affective components of humor. Society for Neuroscience 32nd Annual Meeting. Nov. 2-7. Orlando, Fla.
Further Readings:
Goel, V., and R.J. Dolan. 2001. The functional anatomy of humor: Segregating cognitive and affective components. Nature Neuroscience 4 (March):237-238. Abstract.
Ralph Adolphs - University of Iowa College of Medicine - Department of Neurology
William M. Kelley - Dartmouth College - Department of Psychology and Brain Sciences


Taking Play Seriously By ROBIN MARANTZ HENIG Published: 2/ 17/2008
On a drizzly Tuesday night in late January, 200 people came out to hear a psychiatrist talk rhapsodically about play — not just the intense, joyous play of children, but play for all people, at all ages, at all times. (All species too; the lecture featured touching photos of a polar bear and a husky engaging playfully at a snowy outpost in northern Canada.) Stuart Brown, president of the National Institute for Play, was speaking at the New York Public Library's main branch on 42nd Street. He created the institute in 1996, after more than 20 years of psychiatric practice and research persuaded him of the dangerous long-term consequences of play deprivation. In a sold-out talk at the library, he and Krista Tippett, host of the public-radio program ''Speaking of Faith,'' discussed the biological and spiritual underpinnings of play. Brown called play part of the ''developmental sequencing of becoming a human primate. If you look at what produces learning and memory and well-being, play is as fundamental as any other aspect of life, including sleep and dreams.''
The message seemed to resonate with audience members, who asked anxious questions about what seemed to be the loss of play in their children's lives. Their concern came, no doubt, from the recent deluge of eulogies to play . Educators fret that school officials are hacking away at recess to make room for an increasingly crammed curriculum. Psychologists complain that overscheduled kids have no time left for the real business of childhood: idle, creative, unstructured free play. Public health officials link insufficient playtime to a rise in childhood obesity. Parents bemoan the fact that kids don't play the way they themselves did — or think they did. And everyone seems to worry that without the chance to play stickball or hopscotch out on the street, to play with dolls on the kitchen floor or climb trees in the woods, today's children are missing out on something essential.
The success of ''The Dangerous Book for Boys'' — which has been on the best-seller list for the last nine months — and its step-by-step instructions for activities like folding paper airplanes is testament to the generalized longing for play's good old days. So were the questions after Stuart Brown's library talk; one woman asked how her children will learn trust, empathy and social skills when their most frequent playing is done online. Brown told her that while video games do have some play value, a true sense of ''interpersonal nuance'' can be achieved only by a child who is engaging all five senses by playing in the three-dimensional world.
This is part of a larger conversation Americans are having about play. Parents bobble between a nostalgia-infused yearning for their children to play and fear that time spent playing is time lost to more practical pursuits. Alarming headlines about U.S. students falling behind other countries in science and math, combined with the ever-more-intense competition to get kids into college, make parents rush to sign up their children for piano lessons and test-prep courses instead of just leaving them to improvise on their own; playtime versus résumé building.
Discussions about play force us to reckon with our underlying ideas about childhood, sex differences, creativity and success. Do boys play differently than girls? Are children being damaged by staring at computer screens and video games? Are they missing something when fantasy play is populated with characters from Hollywood's imagination and not their own? Most of these issues are too vast to be addressed by a single field of study (let alone a magazine article). But the growing science of play does have much to add to the conversation. Armed with research grounded in evolutionary biology and experimental neuroscience, some scientists have shown themselves eager — at times perhaps a little too eager — to promote a scientific argument for play. They have spent the past few decades learning how and why play evolved in animals, generating insights that can inform our understanding of its evolution in humans too. They are studying, from an evolutionary perspective, to what extent play is a luxury that can be dispensed with when there are too many other competing claims on the growing brain, and to what extent it is central to how that brain grows in the first place.
2 Scientists who study play, in animals and humans alike, are developing a consensus view that play is something more than a way for restless kids to work off steam; more than a way for chubby kids to burn off calories; more than a frivolous luxury. Play, in their view, is a central part of neurological growth and development — one important way that children build complex, skilled, responsive, socially adept and cognitively flexible brains.
Their work still leaves some questions unanswered, including questions about play's darker, more ambiguous side: is there really an evolutionary or developmental need for dangerous games, say, or for the meanness and hurt feelings that seem to attend so much child's play? Answering these and other questions could help us understand what might be lost if children play less.
''See how that little boy reaches for a pail?'' Stuart Brown asked one morning last fall, standing with me on the fringes of a small playground just north of the Central Park Zoo. ''See how he curves his whole body around it?'' Brown had flown to New York from his home in California to pitch a book about play to publishers. (He sold the idea to an editor at Penguin.) He agreed to meet me at the zoo while he was in town, to help me observe playfulness in the young members of many animal species, including our own.
Social play has its own vocabulary. Dogs have a particular body posture called the ''play bow'' — forelegs extended, rump in the air — that they use as both invitation and punctuation. A dog will perform a play bow at the beginning of a bout, and he will crouch back into it if he accidentally nips too hard and wants to assure the other dog: ''Don't worry! Still playing!''
Other species have play signals, too. Chimps put on a ''play face,'' an open-mouthed expression that is almost like a face of aggression except that the muscles are relaxed into something like a smile. Baboons bend over and peer between their legs as an invitation to play, beavers roll around, goats gambol in a characteristic ''play gait.'' In fact, most species have from 10 to 100 distinct play signals that they use to solicit play or to reassure one another during play-fighting that it's still all just in fun. In humans, the analogue to the chimp's play face is a child's smile, an open expression that indicates there is no real anger involved even in gestures that can look like a fight.
The day Brown met me in the park was a cold one, and the kids were bundled up like Michelin Men, adding more than the usual heft and waddle to their frolicking. Even beneath the padding, though, Brown could detect some typical gestures that these 2- and 3-year-olds were using instinctively to let one another know they were playing. ''Play movement is curvilinear,'' he said. ''If that boy was reaching for something in a nonplay situation, his body would be all straight lines. But using the body language of play, he curves and embraces.''
In their play — climbing up a slide, running around, passing buckets back and forth — the kids we watched were engaging in a pattern of behavior that many scientists believe is hard-wired. Their mothers and nannies were watching, too, no doubt having dragged the kids out of comfortable Upper East Side apartments because they thought daily play was important somehow, perhaps the first step in the long march toward Yale. To me all that little-kid motion looked just a bit silly — because play is, in many ways, a silly thing. Indeed, an essential component of play is its frivolity; biologists generally use phrases like ''apparently purposeless activity'' in their definitions of play. The definition proposed by Gordon Burghardt, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Tennessee, refines that phrase a little. In his 2005 book, ''The Genesis of Animal Play,'' he wrote that play is an activity of ''limited immediate function.''
3 Burghardt included several other factors in his definition too. Play is an activity that is different from the nonplay version of that activity (in terms of form, sequence or the stage of life in which it occurs), is something the animal engages in voluntarily and repeatedly and occurs in a setting in which the animal is ''adequately fed, healthy and free from stress.'' That last part of the definition — that play requires that an animal be stress-free and secure — suggests that play is the biological equivalent of a luxury item, the first thing to go when an animal or child is hungry or sick.
This makes evolutionary scientists prick up their ears. How can a behavior be crucial and expendable at the same time? And play is indeed expendable. Studies of vervet monkeys found that playtime decreased to almost zero during periods of drought in East Africa. Squirrel monkeys won't play when their favorite food sources are unavailable. In humans under stress, what happens with play is more complicated. Even under devastating circumstances, the drive to play is unquenchable. As George Eisen wrote in ''Children and Play in the Holocaust'': ''Children's yearning for play naturally burst forth even amidst the horror. . . . An instinctual, an almost atavistic impulse embedded in the human consciousness.''
Yet play does diminish when children suffer long-term, chronic deprivation, either one at a time in abusive or neglectful homes, or on a massive scale in times of famine, war or forced relocation. And children can still survive, albeit imperfectly, without it.
For humans and animals alike, truly vigorous, wholehearted, spontaneous play is something of a biological frill. This suggests one possible evolutionary function: that in its playfulness, an animal displays its own abundant health and suitability for breeding. But a skeptic might see it differently: if a behavior is this easy to dispense with when times are hard, it might suggest that the behavior is less essential than some advocates claim.
If play is an extravagance, why has it persisted? It must have some adaptive function, or at least a benefit that outweighs its cost, or it would have been winnowed out by the forces of natural selection. One answer can be found through ethology, the study of animal behavior, which takes as one of its goals the explication of how and why a behavior evolved. Nonhuman animals can be more easily studied than humans can: the conditions under which they are raised can be manipulated, their brains altered and probed. And if there is an evolutionary explanation for a human behavior, it could reveal itself in the study of the analogous behavior in animals. Because of nature's basic parsimony, many aspects of the brain and behavior have been conserved through evolution, meaning that many of the observations that ethologists make in rats, mice and monkeys could apply to humans too.
When it comes to animal play, scientists basically agree that it's mostly mammals that do it, and they basically agree that it's a mystery why they do it, since there are so many good reasons not to. It all seems incredibly wasteful, and nature does not usually tolerate waste.
Play can be costly in terms of energy expenditure. Juveniles spend an estimated 2 to 15 percent of their daily calorie budget on play, using up calories the young animal could more profitably use for growing. Frisky playing can also be dangerous, making animals conspicuous and inattentive, more vulnerable to predators and more likely to hurt themselves as they romp and cavort. Biologists have observed many play-related calamities, like bighorn lambs being injured on cactus plants as they frolicked. One of the starkest measures of the risk of play was made by Robert Harcourt, a zoologist now at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, who spent nine months in 1988 observing seal pups off the coast of Peru. Harcourt witnessed 102 seal pups attacked by southern sea lions; 26 of them were killed. ''Of these observed kills,'' Harcourt reported in the British journal Animal Behaviour, ''22 of the pups were playing in the shallow tidal pools immediately before the attack and appeared to be oblivious to the other animals fleeing nearby.'' In other words, nearly 85 percent of the pups that were killed had been playing. So play can be risky. And, under stress, it tends to disappear. What then would justify, in evolutionary terms, the prevalence of play?
4 One popular view is the play-as-preparation hypothesis. In this perspective, play evolved because it is good preparation for adulthood. It is a chance for young animals to learn and rehearse the skills they will need for the rest of their lives, and to do so in a secure environment, where mistakes will have few consequences. Proponents of this hypothesis say play is a way — and, not incidentally, a pleasurable way — of getting into muscle memory the generalized movements of survival: chasing, running, probing, tussling. Through play, these movements can be learned when the stakes are low and then retrieved in adulthood, when the setting is less safe and the need more urgent.
The play-as-preparation hypothesis seems logical, and each new observation seems to confirm it. Watch wolf pups at play, and it is easy to see how the biting and wrangling could be baby versions of the actions the pups will need later to assert their dominance or to help the pack kill its prey. Watch 2-year-olds playing at a toy workbench with little wooden mallets and blocks, and you can picture them as adults employing those same muscles to wield a full-size hammer.
But one trouble with the hypothesis is that the gestures of play, while similar, are not literally the same as the gestures of real life. In fact, the way an animal plays is often the exact opposite of the way it lives. In play-fighting, if one player starts to edge toward victory, he will suddenly reverse roles and move from the dominant to the submissive posture. Or he will stop fighting as hard, something the ethologists call self-handicapping. This is rarely done in real fighting, when the whole point is winning. The targets of play are different, too. In rats, real fighters try to bite one another on the back and the lower flanks; in play fights, they go for the nape of the neck. The gestures players use to nuzzle the neck are not the same ones they need to rehearse if they are to win a serious fight.
Nor is there much experimental evidence to support a connection between youthful playing and adult expertise. One Scottish study of kittens, for instance, tested the hypothesis that ample object play early in life would lead to better hunting later on. The investigator, a psychologist named T. M. Caro then at the University of St. Andrews, found no difference in hunting skills between one group of 11 cats that had been exposed to toys in their youth and a control group of 8 cats that had not.
Now an alternative view is taking hold, based on a belief that there must be something else going on — play not as a literal rehearsal, but as something less direct and ultimately more important. It focuses on the way that play might contribute to the growth and development of the brain.
John Byers started thinking about the brain and play almost by accident. A zoologist at the University of Idaho, Byers had spent years studying the playful antics of deer, pronghorn antelopes and the wild mountain goats called ibex. He knew that play was risky — he had observed ibex kids falling off steep cliffs as they romped — and at first he thought maybe the animals were taking such risks because the motor training helped them get in physical shape for adulthood. But something about this idea troubled him. Play can be exercise, he reasoned, but it was of too short duration to lead to long-term fitness or build muscle tone.
Byers preferred an alternate theory. In almost every species studied, a graph of playfulness looked like an inverted U, increasing during the juvenile period and then falling off around puberty, after which time most animals don't play much anymore. One winter afternoon in 1993, Byers was roaming the stacks at the University of Idaho library, flipping through books the way you do when you're not quite sure what you're looking for. One book contained a graph of the growth curve of one important region of the brain, the cerebellum, over the juvenile period in the mouse. The growth curve of the mouse cerebellum was nearly identical to the curve of mouse playfulness.
5 ''It was like a light went on in my head,'' Byers told me from Washington, D.C., where he is temporarily working at the National Science Foundation. ''I wasn't thinking specifically about play, but I sort of had a long-term interest in behavioral development.'' And there it was: a chart that made it look as if rates of play in mice synchronized almost perfectly with growth rates in one critical region of the brain, the area that coordinates movements originating in other parts of the brain.
Intrigued, Byers enlisted the help of a graduate student, Curt Walker, who looked through the scientific literature on cerebellum development in rats and cats. ''Then we compared those rates to what was known about the rates of play in those species,'' Byers said. ''And rats and cats showed the same relationship as mice: a match between when they were playing and when the cerebellum was growing.''
The synchrony suggested a few things to Byers: that play might be related to growth of the cerebellum, since they both peak at about the same time; that there is a sensitive period in brain growth, during which time it's important for an animal to get the brain-growth stimulation of play; and that the cerebellum needs the whole-body movements of play to achieve its ultimate configuration.
This opened up new lines of research, as neuroscientists tried to pinpoint just where in the brain play had its most prominent effects — which gets to the heart of the question of what might be lost when children do not get enough play. Most of this work has been done in rats. Sergio Pellis, a neuroscientist at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, is one of these investigators. He studies how brain damage in rats affects play behavior, and whether the relationship works in reverse: that is, not only whether brain-damaged rats play abnormally but also whether play-deprived rats develop abnormalities in their brains. Pellis's research indicates that the relationship might indeed work in both directions.
In a set of experiments conducted last year, Pellis and his colleagues raised 12 female rats from the time they were weaned until puberty under one of two conditions. In the control group, each rat was caged with three other female juveniles. In the experimental group, each rat was caged with three female adults. Pellis knew from previous studies that the rats caged with adults would not play, since adult rats rarely play with juveniles, even their own offspring. They would get all the other normal social experiences the control rats had — grooming, nuzzling, touching, sniffing — but they would not get play. His hypothesis was that the brains in the experimental rats would reflect their play-deprived youth, especially in the region known as the prefrontal cortex.
At puberty the rats were euthanized so the scientists could look at their brains. What Pellis and his collaborators found was the first direct evidence of a neurological effect of play deprivation. In the experimental group — the rats raised in a play-deprived environment — they found a more immature pattern of neuronal connections in the medial prefrontal cortex. (This is distant from the cerebellum; it is part of the cerebrum, which constitutes the bulk of the mammalian brain.) Rats, like other mammals, are born with an overabundance of cortical brain cells; as the animal matures, feedback from the environment leads to the pruning and selective elimination of these excess cells, branchings and connections. Play is thought to be one of the environmental influences that help in the pruning — and, this research showed, play deprivation interferes with it.
Figuring out what these findings mean in terms of function involves a certain amount of conjecture. Pellis interprets his observation of a more tangled, immature medial prefrontal cortex in play-deprived rats to mean that the rat will be less able to make subtle adjustments to the social world. But maybe the necessary pruning can happen later in life, through other feedback mechanisms having little to do with play. Maybe there were already compensatory changes happening elsewhere in the brains of these young rats where no one had thought to look. Current research in Pellis's lab, in which the brain is damaged first and the rat's playing ability is measured afterward, seems to confirm that the medial prefrontal cortex has an important role in play. But the exact nature of its action is still not clear.
6 Many of the other important studies on play and the brain have come from the lab of Jaak Panksepp, a behavioral neuroscientist who trained most of the neurological investigators in the field during the three decades he was at Bowling Green State University in Ohio (though Pellis, who studied at Australia's Monash University, was not among them). In the 1980s, Panksepp and a graduate student, Stephen Siviy, located the play drive in the thalamus, a primitive region of the brain that receives sensory information and relays it to the cortex. More recently, Panksepp has been exploring the connections among the play drive and certain human conditions, in particular attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (A.D.H.D.).
Panksepp has been studying A.D.H.D. in rats since the 1990s. In one experiment, to create a rat model of A.D.H.D., he and his colleagues took 32 newborn rats and destroyed in each the right frontal cortex, the region of the brain responsible for paying attention, planning ahead and being sensitive to social cues. (Human studies have shown that in children with A.D.H.D., frontal-lobe development is often delayed.) As a control, they performed sham surgery on 32 other rats, making the incisions but leaving the brain intact to be sure that any observed change would be due to the cortical destruction rather than the surgery itself. When the scientists compared the play behavior of the two groups, they found that the rats with the damaged right frontal cortex had higher levels of overall activity, as well as increased rates of roughand- tumble play, as compared with the controls. The rats with damaged frontal cortices behaved much like children described as hyperactive.
Panksepp and his colleagues then exposed these superplayers to extra opportunities for play. One extra hour a day of play, which generally took the form of play-fighting during a critical early stage, sufficed to reduce hyperactivity. The scientists thought similar play therapy might work for children with A.D.H.D., particularly if it was undertaken in early childhood — between ages 3 and 7 — when the urges are ''especially insistent.''
Panksepp's current view of human A.D.H.D., he told me from his office at Washington State University, where he moved two years ago, is that it is in part ''overactivity of play urges in the nervous system.'' His ideas have made some impression on the human A.D.H.D. community, but not much. Benedetto Vitiello, the head of child and adolescent treatment and research at the National Institute of Mental Health, remembers hearing Panksepp give a talk at the institute around the time his article appeared in 2003. But he said he has not heard of any clinical studies since then that investigate whether extra play in early childhood helps ease the symptoms of A.D.H.D. Besides, Vitiello adds, there are many differences between a rat with a brain injury and a child with an intact but slowly developing brain. So even though he considers Panksepp's research ''interesting,'' he says that it has not quite led to a complete animal model of A.D.H.D.
Animal-play experiments have focused largely on the most vivid form of play — social play, in particular the kind of social play known as play-fighting. But it's clear to anyone who thinks about it that play-fighting is a very narrow definition of play. Wrestling is not the same as chasing. For that matter, playing tag is not the same as playing dress up; playing in a soccer league is not the same as shooting hoops in a neighborhood park; and none of these are the same as playing Scrabble or Uno or video games. For all its variety, however, there is something common to play in all its protean forms: variety itself. The essence of play is that the sequence of actions is fluid and scattered. In the words of Marc Bekoff, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Colorado, play is at its core ''a behavioral kaleidoscope.''
7 In fact, it's this kaleidoscopic quality that led Bekoff and others to think of play as the best way for a young animal to gain a more diverse and responsive behavioral repertory. Thus, the currently fashionable flexibility hypothesis, a revival of an idea Bekoff first proposed in the 1970s. If a single function can be ascribed to every form of play, in every playful species, according to this way of thinking, it is that play contributes to the growth of more supple, more flexible brains.
''I think of play as training for the unexpected,'' Bekoff says. ''Behavioral flexibility and variability is adaptive; in animals it's really important to be able to change your behavior in a changing environment.'' Play, he says, leads to mental suppleness and a broader behavioral vocabulary, which in turn helps the animal achieve success in the ways that matter: group dominance, mate selection, avoiding capture and finding food.
The flexibility hypothesis is something of a bridge between the play-aspreparation hypothesis and more recent findings about play and neurological growth. It works best when explaining play-fighting. With its variable tempo, self-handicapping and role reversals, play-fighting is like the improvisation of a jazz quartet, forcing an animal to respond rapidly to change.
Players riff off one another. One thrusts, the other parries; suddenly the one that was on top is pinned on the bottom and then just as suddenly is on top again. As in jazz, the smoothness of the improvisation matters as much as the gestures themselves. ''Ability to use and switch among alternative sequences,'' Maxeen Biben, an ethologist formerly at the National Institutes of Health, wrote in an essay in ''Animal Play,'' ''may be as valuable as getting a lot of practice at the most effective sequences.''
The physical movements of playfighting provide the environmental input needed to prune the developing cortex, as Sergio Pellis's research suggested. This pruning is one way an animal achieves the ability to predict and respond to another animal's shifting movements. Some play scholars say that such skills will come in handy in adulthood, not only in fighting but in other real-life situations as well, like evading capture and finding food. A more skeptical view would be that play-fighting might not really teach much at all about an animal's subsequent skills — there was that Scottish study about object play in kittens, remember, that showed no connection to hunting ability in adulthood — but it does one thing for sure: it makes the animal that play-fights a better play-fighter. And there might be something to be said for that. The more a young animal plays, the richer the animal's life, the more fun, the more stimulated, the more social. There might possibly be an immediate benefit just from that simple fact.
Which reveals an important rift in the study of the purpose of play: a debate among play scholars about how to tell the story of play's possible short-term and long-term benefits. The flexibility hypothesis imposes one such story, but it might not be the best story. Just because it's possible to see how playing might contribute to a suppler brain and a more varied behavioral repertory, it does not follow that playing is the only way to achieve such flexibility. This relates to the concept of equifinality, an idea from systems theory that says there are usually more ways than one to arrive at a particular end. The fact that play offers one way of getting to an end need not mean it is the only way — nor need it mean that getting to that end is the ultimate purpose of play.
The problem of equifinality troubled Anthony Pellegrini, a psychologist at the University of Minnesota, when he tried to interpret his findings about rough-and-tumble play in fifth-grade boys. He and his colleagues studied the recess behavior of 37 boys and scored a play episode as rough-and-tumble when a boy engaged in one from a list of behaviors — ''tease, hit and kick at, chase, poke, pounce, sneak up, carry child, pile on, play-fight, hold and push'' — while displaying a wide smile or ''play face.'' Knowing that earlier studies found a connection between roughand- tumble play and a child's peer affiliation and social problem-solving flexibility, the scientists hypothesized that the most vigorous players would also be the most socially competent. But Pellegrini found no clear benefits in the boys who played the most. Maybe, he wrote in an essay about this research in ''The Future of Play Theory,'' it's because other things that happen at recess — ''cooperative social games, comfort contact and conversation'' — might be just as good as pouncing or chasing at achieving a sense of connection.
8 ''Developmental systems tend to be highly redundant,'' wrote Patrick Bateson, a noted biologist at Cambridge University, in a book of essays called ''The Nature of Play.'' This means, Bateson wrote, ''that if an endpoint is not achieved by one route, it is achieved by another. Playing when young is not the only way to acquire knowledge and skills; the animal can delay acquisition until it is an adult.''
Nonetheless, even Bateson, a prominent play scholar who recognizes the quandary posed by equifinality, suggested that play is the best way to reach certain goals. Through play, an individual avoids what he called the lure of ''false endpoints,'' a problem-solving style more typical of harried adults than of playful youngsters. False endpoints are avoided through play, Bateson wrote, because players are having so much fun that they keep noodling away at a problem and might well arrive at something better than the first, good-enough solution.
But maybe the flexibility hypothesis is itself a false endpoint. Maybe the idea that play is the best route to a whole host of good results — creativity, social agility, overall mental suppleness — is just the first idea scientists landed on, and they were inclined to accept it because it fit so well with their innate ideas about the nature of childhood. This is the view of a small group of play scholars we'll call the play skeptics. What worries the play skeptics is that most people in the industrialized West — scientists in the field, play advocates and all the rest of us, parents, teachers, doctors, scholars, all the children and all the aging children — have been ensnared by what skeptics call the ''play ethos.'' By this they mean the reflexive, unexamined belief that play is an unmitigated good with a crucial, though vaguely defined, evolutionary function.
''Play ethos'' comes from Peter Smith, a psychology professor at the University of London and a leading authority on play's effect on children's emotional development. He uses it as a cautionary term, a reminder that most conclusions about play's adaptive function have so far been based not on scientific evidence but on wishful thinking.
For Smith to suggest that scientists have fallen under the spell of the play ethos is a kind of apostasy, because some of the earliest bits of evidence used to establish the play ethos in the first place came out of Smith's own laboratory at the University of London in the late 1970s. But it was in the execution of those experiments, and the follow- up studies that revealed their fatal flaw, that Smith came to understand, more than most, the importance of caution.
In one of his early experiments, Smith and his colleagues put 3- and 4-year-olds in two different play settings. In one group the children were allowed to play, in whatever way they felt like, with several wooden sticks. In the other group they were shown by an adult ''play tutor'' how to fit two sticks together to make a longer one. Then the children were given two tasks. First they had to retrieve a marble by connecting two sticks. Both groups performed this task, which Smith called ''direct'' problem solving, about equally well. Then they had to retrieve a marble that had been pushed farther away, so they could reach it only by connecting three sticks, not just two — what Smith called ''innovative'' problem solving. The children who had played with the sticks performed this task significantly better than the ones who had been shown how to join together only two sticks.
''At this point I was happy,'' Smith recalled years later, writing in ''The Future of Play Theory.'' His findings were taken as evidence that spontaneous free play led to more creative thinking. But then he started to wonder whether he himself had fallen victim to the play ethos.
9 A single investigator had conducted the entire experiment, serving as both play tutor and evaluator on the problem-solving task. Might the experimenter subconsciously have favored the free-play children, Smith asked himself, maybe by giving subtle nonverbal cues or scoring more leniently? He ran the experiment again, bringing in a second investigator who could test the children without knowing whether they were in the free-play or the tutored group.
This time Smith found no difference in innovative problem solving between the two groups. At first he didn't believe his new results, thinking that maybe the sample size was too small or that the groups were somehow poorly matched. But further studies bore out this nonfinding, and Smith realized, on reflection, that he and his colleagues had probably been giving inadvertent hints to the free-play group the first time around. He ascribed it to his own subconscious idealization of play.
Idealization is a trap. And it seems most seductive when it comes to play, especially one particular kind: pretend play. This is the kind ethologists tend to ignore, since it is difficult to argue — though a few scientists have tried — that animals are capable of pretending. Yet for humans, pretend play is one of the most crucial forms of play, occupying at its peak at about age 4 some 20 percent of a child's day. It includes some of the most wondrous moments of childhood: dramatic play, wordplay, ritual play, symbolic play, games, jokes and imaginary friends. And it is the kind of play that positively screams out for hyperbole when outsiders try to describe it. This is where even coolheaded scientists get florid in their prose — and where play advocates like Stuart Brown and play skeptics like Peter Smith engage in their most vivid disagreements about the ultimate purpose of play.
Brown talked about pretend play at the New York Public Library last month, saying that a playful imagination ''can infuse the moment with a sense of magic.'' But skeptics find such comments annoying. ''Despite the heartwarming rhetoric we dish out in our teacher-training classes, children do not have unlimited imagination,'' wrote David Lancy, an anthropologist at Utah State University. ''Their make-believe and, by extension, other play forms, is constrained by the roles, scripts and props of the culture they live in.'' Lancy pointed to field studies of a Mayan community in which children teach their younger siblings how to pretend in the most pedestrian of ways, ''focusing their attention on washing, caring for babies and cooking'' — no magic there.
The skeptical Smith does see some value to fantasy play: when children dress up, make and use props and devise story lines to playact, he says, they learn to use sophisticated language, negotiate roles and exchange information. But he adds that many of these benefits could be gained just as well through other forms of play, work activities and plain old-fashioned instruction. Smith does not deny that playing is great fun — his own children were playing noisily in the background when I phoned him at his home in London, and he never once asked them to hush — but he wants everyone to keep it all in perspective.
Keeping play in perspective means looking at it not just clearly but fully. Not everything about childhood play is sweetness and light, no matter how much we romanticize it. Play can be dangerous or scary. It can be disturbing, destabilizing, aggressive. It can lead to misunderstandings and hurt feelings, leaving children out of the charmed circle of the schoolyard. The other side of playing is teasing, bullying, scapegoating, excluding, hurting.
I well remember this darker side of play from my own girlhood. Like many other klutzy kids, I hated recess, since it stripped me of the classroom competence that was such good cover for my shyness. Out in the schoolyard, there was no raising your hand with the right answer. I had to wait to be asked to play jump-rope and had to face embarrassment if I missed a skip or — worse, much worse — if nobody ended up asking me. Even pretend play could take an ugly turn if my playmates made their dolls say nasty things.
Recognizing play's dark side is not difficult, if we are really willing to search our memories. To play scholars, thinking about play's negatives can be clarifying and might even generate new ideas, not only about play but also about the double-edged nature of pleasure itself. Why is it that something so joyous, something children yearn for so forcefully, can be so troubling too? If you're accustomed to looking for evolutionary explanations for perplexing behavior, here is something meaty to chew on: what could be the adaptive advantage of using play to wrestle your demons?
Demons do indeed emerge at playtime, in part because children carve out play spaces that have no room for the civilizing influence of adults. This is what happened in the recess ''fort culture'' that arose spontaneously in 1990 at the Lexington Montessori School in Massachusetts, when the elementary-age children shunned the organized play their teachers had arranged and instead started building forts on their own in the surrounding woods. An intricate and rule-bound subculture developed, one that is still going on.
Mark Powell, then a graduate student at Lesley University in Cambridge nearby, observed the recess fort culture for several years in the 1990s and described it in 2007 in the journal Children, Youth and Environments. For the first few years, he wrote, petty conflicts, stick stealing and ejections for minor infractions were a constant background hum in a play culture that was otherwise high-spirited and fun. But it finally erupted into a miniwar one autumn, sparked by the hostile actions of a fort of 6- year-olds headed by a tyrannical little boy who called himself the General. Within a month of the General's appearance, Powell wrote, the fantasy war play ''had become a reality with daily raids and counterattacks, yelling, the occasional physical scrape and lots of hurt feelings.'' It took the intervention of some other children, teachers and the General's parents finally to persuade the child to call a truce.
Brian Sutton-Smith, one of the nation's most eminent play scholars, has seen eruptions like the General's many times before, but they don't worry him. In fact, he embraces them. In such an elaborate play culture, he wrote, where so many harsh human truths come to the fore, ''children learn all those necessary arts of trickery, deception, harassment, divination and foul play that their teachers won't teach them but are most important in successful human relationships in marriage, business and war.''
Sutton-Smith's 1997 classic, ''The Ambiguity of Play,'' reflects in its title his belief that play's ultimate purpose can be found in its paradoxes. During his years at Columbia's Teachers College and the University of Pennsylvania, Sutton- Smith, a psychologist and folklorist, took careful note of how play could be destabilizing, destructive or disturbing. He collected renditions of the stories children told in their imaginative or dramatic play, stories of ''being lost, being stolen, being bitten, dying, being stepped on, being angry, calling the police, running away or falling down.'' Are these really the thoughts percolating inside our children? And is expressing these thoughts through play somehow good for them? Sutton-Smith called this underbelly of imaginative play part of the ''phantasmagoria,'' where children's thoughts run wild and all the chaotic bits of the real world get tumbled together and pulled haphazardly apart in new, sometimes even scarier confabulations.
Why would such an enriching activity as play also be a source of so much anarchy and fear? Sutton- Smith found one possible answer by reading Stephen Jay Gould, the author and evolutionary biologist. The most highly adaptive organisms, Gould wrote, are those that embody both the positive and the negative, organisms that ''possess an opposite set of attributes usually devalued in our culture: sloppiness, broad potential, quirkiness, unpredictability and, above all, massive redundancy.'' Finely tuned specific adaptations can lead to blind alleys and extinction, he wrote; ''the key is flexibility.''
11 What Gould called quirkiness, Sutton-Smith called play. ''Animal play has been described by many investigators as fragmentary, disorderly, unpredictable and exaggerated,'' Sutton-Smith wrote, and ''child play has been said to be improvised, vertiginous and nonsensical.'' The adaptive advantage to a behavior that is multifaceted, then, is that pursuing it, enjoying it, needing it to get through the day, allows for a wider range in a play-loving person's behavioral repertory, which is always handy, just in case.
Playing might serve a different evolutionary function too, he suggests: it helps us face our existential dread. The individual most likely to prevail is the one who believes in possibilities — an optimist, a creative thinker, a person who has a sense of power and control. Imaginative play, even when it involves mucking around in the phantasmagoria, creates such a person. ''The adaptive advantage has often gone to those who ventured upon their possibility with cries of exultant commitment,'' Sutton-Smith wrote. ''What is adaptive about play, therefore, may be not only the skills that are a part of it but also the willful belief in acting out one's own capacity for the future.''
It's a pretty idea, the notion that play gives you hope for a better tomorrow, but science demands something a little less squishy. Science demands that if there are important long-term benefits to play, they must be demonstrated. That is why studies of play-deprived rats are so fascinating; they offer objective evidence that in at least some animals, insufficient play can have serious consequences.
Even when science suggests certain answers, however, it cannot easily make the leap from young rats to young humans, nor tell us much of anything about how those young children should behave. What if all the things we hope children derive from free play — cognitive flexibility, social competence, creative problem-solving, mastery of their own bodies and their own environments — can be learned just as well by teaching these skills directly? What if the only clear advantage to the vanishing 20-minute recess is that it makes kids less restless in class, something that can be just as easily accomplished by a jog around the all-purpose room?
Which brings us back to wondering what would be lost if the Cassandras are right, whether children would suffer if free play really does turn out to be a thing of the past. It seems almost ludicrous to ask such a question. Of course play is good for something; it is the essence of good. Watch children at play, and the benefits are so obvious: just look at those ecstatic faces, just listen to those joyful squeals. Stuart Brown alluded to it in his library talk last month. ''Look at life without play, and it's not much of a life,'' he told the audience. ''If you think of all the things we do that are playrelated and erase those, it's pretty hard to keep going.'' Without play, he said, ''there's a sense of dullness, lassitude and pessimism, which doesn't work well in the world we live in.''
In the end, it comes down to a matter of trade-offs. There are only six hours in a school day, only another six or so till bedtime, and adults are forever trying to cram those hours with activities that are productive, educational and (almost as an afterthought) fun. Animal findings about how play influences brain growth suggest that playing, though it might look silly and purposeless, warrants a place in every child's day. Not too overblown a place, not too sanctimonious a place, but a place that embraces all styles of play and that recognizes play as every bit as essential to healthful neurological development as test-taking drills, Spanish lessons or Suzuki violin.


At Broadway Elementary School here, there is no more sitting around after lunch. No more goofing off with friends. No more doing nothing.
Instead there is Brandi Parker, a $14-an-hour recess coach with a whistle around her neck, corralling children behind bright orange cones to play organized games. There she was the other day, breaking up a renegade game of hopscotch and overruling stragglers' lame excuses.They were bored. They had tired feet. They were no good at running.“I don't like to play,” protested Esmeilyn Almendarez, 11. “Why do I have to go through this every day with you?” replied Ms. Parker, waving her back in line. “There's no choice.”
Broadway Elementary brought in Ms. Parker in January out of exasperation with students who, left to their own devices, used to run into one another, squabble over balls and jump-ropes or monopolize the blacktop while exiling their classmates to the sidelines. Since she started, disciplinary referrals at recess have dropped by three-quarters, to an average of three a week. And injuries are no longer a daily occurrence. “Before, I was seeing nosebleeds, busted lips, and students being a danger to themselves and others,” said Alejandro Echevarria, the principal. “Now, Coach Brandi does miracles with 20 cones and three handballs.” The school is one of a growing number across the country that are reining in recess to curb bullying and behavior problems, foster social skills and address concerns over obesity. They also hope to show children that there is good old-fashioned fun to be had without iPods and video games.
Playworks, a California-based nonprofit organization that hired Ms. Parker to run the recess program at Broadway Elementary, began a major expansion in 2008 with an $18 million grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. It has placed recess coaches in 170 schools in low-income areas of nine cities, including Boston, Washington and Los Angeles, and of Silicon Valley.
Playworks schools are not the only ones with organized recess games. In Florida, Broward County's 140 elementary schools swapped recess for 30 minutes of teacher-supervised physical activities in 2007. Last year in Kearney, Neb., the district had a university professor and five students teach recess games and draw in students who tended to stand against the fence. Although many school officials and parents like the organized activity, its critics say it takes away the only time that children have to unwind. In Wyckoff, N.J., an upper-middle-class township in Bergen County with a population of 17,000, hundreds of people signed a petition in protest after the district replaced recess in 2007 with a “midday fitness” program. “I just can't imagine going through the entire day without a break, whether you're an adult or a child,” said Maria Costa, a Wyckoff mother of three who said that every day her daughter came home feeling stress after rushing through lunch to run laps. “It's just not natural.” Recess has since been restored in Wyckoff's middle school, and on alternating days in elementary schools.
Dr. Romina M. Barros, an assistant clinical professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx who was an author of a widely cited study on the benefits of recess, published last year in the journal Pediatrics, says that children still benefit most from recess when they are let alone to daydream, solve problems, use their imagination to invent their own games and “be free to do what they choose to do.” Structured recess, Dr. Barros said, simply transplants the rules of the classroom to the playground. “You still have to pay attention,” she said. “You still have to follow rules. You don't have that time for your brain to relax.” Adeola Whitney, executive director for Playworks in the Newark area, said that the recess coaches used a playbook with hundreds of games and gave students a say in what they do. “It's not rigid in any way, and it certainly allows for their creativity,” Ms. Whitney said. “In some cases, we're teaching children how to play if they can't go to the park because it's drug-infested, or their parents can't afford to send them to activities.” Each school pays Playworks $23,500 a year to run a recess program — Broadway Elementary is using a grant from Covanta Energy, which owns a waste-to-energy plant in Newark — and the rest of the expenses for training, equipment, after-school activities and field trips are covered through the nonprofit's grants and donations. It is not just about fun and games. At University Heights Charter School in Newark, another of New Jersey's eight Playworks programs, students have learned to settle petty disputes, like who had the ball first or who pushed whom, not with fists but with the tried and true rock-paper-scissors. “Recess used to end with bad feelings that would continue to play out in the first 20 minutes of class,” said Misha Simmonds, the charter school's executive director. “Instead of recess being a refreshing time, it took away from readiness to learn.”
Ms. Parker, 28, the coach at Broadway Elementary, had worked as a counselor for troubled teenagers in a group home in Burlington, N.C. Besides her work at recess, she visits each class once a week to play games that teach lessons about cooperation, sportsmanship and respect.“These are the things that matter in life: who you are as a human being at the core,” she said. Broadway Elementary, with 367 students in kindergarten to fourth grade, rises above a rough-hewn industrial neighborhood in the North Ward. Nearly all the students are black or Hispanic, and poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. There are three 15-minute recesses, with more than 100 children at a time packed into a fenced-in basketball court equipped with nothing more than a pair of netless hoops.
On a chilly morning, Ms. Parker shoveled snow off the blacktop so that the students could go outside after being cooped up in the cafeteria during recess in the previous week. She drew squares in blue and green chalk for a game called switch, a fast-paced version of musical chairs — without the chairs. (She goes through a box of chalk a week.) Ms. Parker, who greets students with hugs and a cheerful “hello-hello,” keeps the rules simple so that they can focus on playing rather than on following directions. “We're trying to get them to exert energy, to get it all out,” she said. “They can be as loud as they want. I never tell them to be quiet unless I'm telling them something.”
Jose Salcedo, a fourth grader, volunteers as a junior coach, though he said that he and his friends sometimes missed the old recess, because “nobody would tell us what to do.” Others, like Khizeeq Murphy, 10, say they look forward to playing different games every day. Before, Khizeeq said, he used to just run and dribble a basketball. Kazmir Payne, a second grader, wishes he could have his free time back, but his mother, Kizzy, appreciates the more regimented recess. “It's better this way because that's how other kids get hurt, when you're horse-playing,” she said. “I think the more supervision, the better.”