Benefits of play – Mental
What is the importance of play in the development of a child’s brain? Obviously this is a really important aspect to consider for Eden Softplay; if we intend to be a force for good in the world, we need to be sure that our main product is most beneficial for the minds of those who use it.
So what is play? How is it different to exercise or games? I think the difference is freedom and creativity. To make and break rules, to explore the possibilities!
This area is a tricky one to find some direct evidence proving that play is good for the mind. In terms of more obvious effects of play like social and physical benefits, these are very easy to see in the short term, but the development of the brain occurs over years. The reason we can’t study this is simple: All children play naturally, unless they’re prevented from doing it! So to study play’s benefits would require us to withhold play from a group of children for years and see what happens, this would not be ok!
They have studied rats though…
Marion Diamond led some research in the sixties which involved one group of rats in a stimulating environment with lots of buddies, the less fortunate rats were left alone with not much to do. They then looked at their brains and found that the cerebral cortices of the rats with a playful environment were thicker. The cerebral cortex is thought to be important for memory, attention, perception, awareness, thought, language, and consciousness. They also found more BDNF, a protein that helps build brain cells, in the brains of the rats directly after play and exploration.
We know that physical exercise has benefits in our brain chemistry, so what’s the difference with play? Why does play develop the brain?
Apart from the social aspects, play involves all sorts of brain functions, and we know the brain is like a muscle, the more we use it in a certain way the better the brain can do that job. Play involves creative problem solving, internal language, imagination, self-regulation, investigation and many other functions which are good to strengthen in the brain.
So how does this effect a soft play? There are two types of activity, convergent and divergent. Convergent activities are prescriptive and tend to have one solution, for example a puzzle, a ball shooter (found at lots of soft plays), or most children’s apps on phones and tablets. Divergent activities are open-ended, with no single way to be successful, an example of this would be building blocks, space to run, a ball pit. Convergent activities can still be fun and are great to teach children to colour within the lines (figuratively and literally!), but I would argue that divergent activities are where play is best.
What we love to see in our soft play area is true play, children making up games, interacting, chasing throwing, catching, laughing, helping each other climb, exploring and imagining. Our play space is designed for the imagination, with features that are versatile and non-specific in their use. You will never see us install a ball-shooter or anything with a screen, because we don’t believe its play, just restrictive. It might be fun, and even stimulating, but we’re in the business of good-old fashioned play!