Play is the embodiment of discovery, a path to strength and curiosity. As children grow, their innate drives for curiosity, play, willfulness, and sociability must be fostered, not hindered. This column gives educators and parents the knowledge and tools to ignite the "play circuit" in your students.
Learn Twice As Fast
How To Turn On The “Play Circuits” Of Your Students
By Stuart Grauer, with Nick Scacco
Robert Louis Stevenson's words from “Keepsake Mill” always make me smile, and my daughter was raised on them:
Over the borders, a sin without pardon,
Breaking the branches and crawling below,
Out through the breach in the wall of the garden,
Down by the banks of the river we go.
A lot of troubling news can make its way into our schools and impact our children’s minds and spirits. Let’s talk about antidotes and even create some. On our beautiful campus, out beyond our ceilinged, 4-walled classrooms, out where the branches look climbable and creatures crawl beneath the living earth, lies the heart of pure learning and discovery, if we can get there with our students with some regularity.
Our students, given the chance, will show us how to get there: They will play instinctively. Through play, they sculpt their bodies, navigate risks, grasp languages, and master cultural tools. They learn the rules of nature and society, fire up their imaginations, and weave logic into their games. In fact, the two most natural activities in the world to developing humans are playing and learning. Maybe they are the same thing. What an amazing thing for a teacher or parent to watch! It’s the ultimate lab—our field is a petri dish.
Nick Scacco, Grauer environmental science teacher, sent me an article by Dr. Jaak Panksepp, of Bowling Green State University. Panksepp has studied the playful conditions under which children — young, vibrant, and eager — thrive. Panksepp, a pioneering neuroscientist, identified a neural playground he calls the play circuit. Nick wants to create a lab for his students not only to activate this circuit, but to measure it. What an amazing science lab!
Panksepp asks: Why are such overwhelming and growing numbers of U.S. students (and their parents) anxious about keeping up, complying with requirements, and suppressing their real curiosities? In schools, with their overloaded curricula, curiosity is often treated as digression, and often trained out of many students who we label our high achievers. Just as tough, in many corners of our world of education I have seen, the natural players — the jesters, the dreamers, the innovators, the questioners, the misfits, and the spirited explorers who insist upon exercising natural curiosity — are silenced with discipline or amphetamines. Though a miracle for some, medications like Adderall or Ritalin if over-prescribed, like admonishment, can stifle the very play circuits that Panksepp emphasizes. These interventions, though sometimes yielding short-term academic gains, can leave long-lasting scars, extinguishing the flames of curiosity and joy.
Play is alive in children’s games like freeze tag on the field, and it can stay alive your whole life. I spent decades in business winning strategy games against competitors who did not appear to be having much fun. I was. I call that: serious fun. Whenever I’m on my game in business, or in teaching, or out on the green (or surf), I know those play circuits are firing.
The Netflix series “Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones” documents the serious fun of living long. I’ll have to study this more, but now it strikes me that the secrets to joyful, deep learning are the same as those for living a long life that keep coming up in “Blue Zones” all over the world. The idea that playful, lighthearted, free-spirited people may not only learn better but live longer is supported by substantial research, the topic for another story.
Play is basic to The Grauer School’s founding principles, our student proposal process, our honors program, our expeditions, and so much more. Play’s the spirit behind our middle school elective, "Pure Fun," where programming takes a back seat to free choice. Play is our adaptability, our strategic plan.
What if we could learn to ignite our play circuit and what if our teachers taught this? What if igniting the play circuit was a final exam for students and the hiring test for teachers!
As noted above, play is often dismissed rather than ignited. We overlook its power to reshape the prefrontal cortex, where flexibility blooms and learning accelerates. Great educators, like Peter Gray of Boston College, advocate for play and self-directed education, and for those students who seem to insist on it, so far from the imposed rigidity of traditional schooling.
The fast rise in homeschooling in the U.S., often aligned with the philosophy of unschooling, is a testament to the desire for self-directed and play-based learning. Homeschoolers outside the system find that through play, children invent languages and construct worlds, they build (by hand!), they imagine, and they socialize — skills not always nurtured within the time and space constraints of conventional classrooms.
In addition to homeschooling, educational practitioners can find methods for infusing play and self-directed learning in many movements underway, including small schools, Montessori education, Reggio Emelia, Waldorf, forest schools, expeditionary/adventure education, and, at many of its finest moments, The Grauer School. Each of these movements incorporates play in different ways but shares the common belief that play is crucial for children's development and learning.
Play is the embodiment of discovery, a path to strength and curiosity. Human curiosity won’t fade unless we allow it to be quenched by a system that undervalues it. Educators such as Panksepp find that as children grow, their innate drives for curiosity, play, willfulness, and sociability must be fostered, not hindered. They do not need to dim as we become “grown-up.” According to Panksepp, everyone can ignite the play circuit.
School leaders and parents: To ignite the play circuit, we shift the paradigm, from “education” to “learning,” something students do naturally. Do these:
- Recognize that learning is a personal endeavor.
- Offer times of boundless freedom to explore and play.
- Regularly engage with the tools of our culture (athletic gear, art supplies, computer equipment, books, etc.) without agendas or fear of getting shut down if you are “wrong.”
- Surround learners with supportive, guiding mentors.
- Encourage inter-age interactions (a timeless tradition).
- Immerse them in a stable, moral, democratic community.
- Promote abundant physical and outdoor activity.
- Nurture (and try to model) a sense of humor to foster cognitive flexibility.
By reimagining education to honor learner-centered principles, we unleash the full capacity of the brain, allowing children to absorb knowledge as effortlessly as sponges soak up water.
Teachers: Activate the play circuit in your classroom regularly:
- Release students from structured instruction and observe them carefully.
- Assign them to play, to chase their curiosities and probe their findings afterwards.
- Remove expectations, letting natural inclinations guide their discovery.
- Reflect on their experiences, examining the rules they created and the challenges they overcame.
Unique curiosity and creativity emerge when ready, so have students get used to discussing their process. See if they, and you, can find and ignite the play circuit.
The activities described in the above passages are likely to activate several neurochemicals in the brain, each contributing to different aspects of learning and emotional well-being. As our research journals and tabloids overflow with the news of student anxiety, loneliness, and disconnection, understand what the play circuit ignites:
- Dopamine: Often associated with the reward system, dopamine provides feelings of enjoyment and reinforcement to motivate a person proactively to perform certain activities. Engaging in enjoyable activities like dancing, making art, or playing frisbee can trigger the release of dopamine, which not only boosts mood but also enhances memory and learning.
- Serotonin: This neurotransmitter contributes to feelings of happiness and well-being. It's often released during physical activity, such as running; it can lead to a more positive mood and a sense of calm, which can be conducive to learning.
- Endorphins: These are released in response to stress and pain, but also during pleasurable activities. They can act as a natural painkiller and mood elevator, which may be especially relevant during playful activities that involve physical engagement.
- Oxytocin: Sometimes released during social bonding activities, such as sharing or playing games with others, oxytocin can foster a sense of trust and reduce fear, potentially making a learning environment feel safer and more welcoming.
- Norepinephrine: This neurotransmitter is related to arousal and alertness and can increase attention to detail and the ability to respond to stimuli, which might be particularly active during fast-paced or exciting play.
Can your students identify which of these aspects of learning they believe they have experienced? What a great science experiment!
Alternatively, a high control, authoritarian, or stressful classroom can activate a whole other set of brain chemicals:
- Low Dopamine Levels: Caused by lack of positive feedback, recognition, and engaging activities.
- Low Serotonin Levels: Result from high-stress environments, lack of support, and excessive criticism.
- Low Endorphins: Arise from neglecting emotional or physical pain and limiting enjoyable interactions.
- Low Oxytocin Levels: Stem from an absence of affection, trust, and social bonding opportunities.
- Low Norepinephrine: Occur due to unstimulating, non-challenging activities that fail to engage or excite.
None of this indicates that great teachers can’t have great classroom instruction without constant “free range” activity and an absence of organization. This is about knowing the impact our controls are liable to really have on kids, which could be the opposite of our intentions. And it is about balance and the respect for all kinds of learning, both formal and playful.
And now the fun part:
There are several simple, non-invasive physiological measurements that can serve as indicators of neurochemical changes due to well-being and play. Before and after activities such as scavenger hunts or group games, or riding on a roller coaster(!) we can run experiments in environmental science, neuroscience, psychology, physical education, and the arts:
- Pulse Rate: Measuring pulse rate before and after play can indicate activation levels. Increased heart rate during play is normal, but a quicker return to resting rate afterward could indicate good cardiovascular fitness and stress recovery, associated with well-being. (the Harvard Step Test measures this.)
- Blood Pressure: Blood pressure can fluctuate with stress levels. Observing lower blood pressure after play may suggest relaxation and a sense of calm, potentially related to the release of endorphins and serotonin.
- Galvanic Skin Response (GSR): GSR measures the electrical conductance of the skin, which varies with its moisture level. This can indicate arousal, excitement, or stress, as these states can increase perspiration. A decrease in GSR after a period of relaxation post-activity may indicate reduced stress.
- Breathing Rate: Observing changes in breathing rate can be telling. A slowed breathing rate after play may suggest a state of relaxation, associated with the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system and release of serotonin.
- Perceived Stress Test:
Current Stress Level Rating Scale:
0 = No stress at all
0-3 = Mild stress
4-6 = Moderate stress
7-9 = High stress
7-10 = Extremely high stress
Instructions: Think about your current level of stress. Rate your stress level on a scale from 0 to 10. The score is the number you choose—this is a rough estimate of how much stress you think you may be experiencing.
Why can’t our bodies be our own science labs as we turn on (or off) our own play circuits? In the past, our science teachers have run some of the above experiments to the joy of students who are making new connections.
In the "sanctuary of play" every human was born to create, the combination of these neurochemicals not only accelerates learning but transforms it into a more joyful and intrinsically motivated process, and this will pay off in the classroom, on the sports field, or in our jobs. Self-directed fun is necessary for the holistic development of a young person’s potential—and all of our potentials.
In the end, if you are not having enough fun and igniting those play circuits, you might not be learning what you need. Maybe head on over to the Keepsake Mill.
The Importance Of Play: An Interview with Dr. Jaak Panksepp, BrainWorld Magazine
Activating A Single Brain Circuit Makes You Learn Twice as Fast, Taylor Foreman
In search of the neurobiological substrates for social playfulness in mammalian brains, Stephen M Siviy, Jaak Panksepp
The psychobiology of play: theoretical and methodological perspectives, J Panksepp, S Siviy, L Normansell
What is Self-Directed Education?, Professor Peter Gray, Boston College
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