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Get Out and Play: Sports and Child Development

child development
Playing is fun! The importance of play goes beyond simply passing time or seeking health benefits. A study completed by scientist Jaak Panksepp supports the pre-existing hypothesis that play is critical to child development.

Panksepp, along with others in the scientific community, theorizes that humans, as social animals, need play to learn social rules and cues. Through sports, people form communication skills, learn cooperation and leadership and come to better understand others.

To test this idea, Panksepp experimented with rats. He isolated one group so they could not play, while allowing another group to play. When both groups were placed in the same cage, the rats that received more stimulation were better able to interact and mate than the rats that were not allowed to play.

A comparable study done on kittens by a different group of scientists observed similar results. The young cats that were unable to play failed to acquire certain social skills. And although the kittens that were deprived of play could still hunt well, they were more aggressive and had trouble fitting in socially with other cats.

Lack of play, especially at a young age, proves to be a serious problem. Panksepp concluded that, with play, both humans and animals learn to live in social groups, build relationships, express emotions and master skills that do not come instinctively.

The importance of play for child development cannot be understated, according to Panksepp and many others concerned with the health and well being of young people.

The U.N. and UNICEF hold play as a fundamental right for every child, and protect that right under Article 31 of the Convention of Right of the Child. Sport and recreation are essential components of a child’s education, allowing children to gain confidence and lead healthier, more balanced lives.

Unfortunately, children living in poverty and areas of conflict are the most deprived of play.

Children are denied their rights when they are forced to work at a young age. In an effort to support their families, poor children drop out of school and work long and hard jobs. Across the world, there are over 168 million child laborers. Laboring like adults prevents them from playing and gaining the important life skills that come with play.

War and violence also keep children from play. Those in conflict zones live in constant fear and cannot run and have fun outside. With current conflicts raging in Gaza, Iraq and Syria, to name a few, the impact of war on children’s lives today is extensive and pervasive.

Without play, children living in poverty and conflict are denied essential interactions. Childhood is a critical period to set the foundations for healthy development, and play acts as an important component to this growth. The study completed by Panksepp suggests that the conditions experienced by children in poverty and conflict can have long-term negative consequences on their development.

– Kathleen Egan

Sources: NPR, UNICEF, International Labor Organization
Photo: UNICEF