In 1998, Jaak Panksepp, a then-unknown neuroscientist, discovered that rats laugh.
In his lab, he “tickled” the bellies of rats with the end of his pencil and recorded their reactions, then slowed it down. He discovered they “giggle” ultrasonically, too high-pitched for us to hear.
At first, that sounds like an odd study to get funded. But Jaak Panksepp was working on a grand theory of human cognition. He discovered that play is one of the fundamental circuits in mammal brains (among several others).
Put simply, play, like hunger and thirst, is a basic neurological force.
Why? Because play is how we learn. Everyone, including kids, can learn twice as fast if they activate the play circuit.
Further, by cultivating a playful state of mind, kids tend to have better life outcomes, like making more money.
Why Kids Should Rekindle Play
Schools were designed to produce factory workers.
Think about it: rows of chairs, assembly lines, and even bells ringing to indicate the ends of “shifts.”
That was great in 1922 when kids needed to leave school and head directly to a factory where they would perform best if they followed orders and could memorize information. However, in 2022, it’s a disaster.
In another rat study, rat brains are underdeveloped when they aren’t allowed to wrestle (which they love to do).
In classrooms, by contrast, kids who are determined to play (AKA smart-alecks, big-mouths, class clowns, and slackers–people we like) are given Adderall or Ritalin. To quell playful behavior in classrooms, we use these amphetamines, which are chemically similar to meth.
And, ironically (in an incredibly tragic way), those drugs suppress — you guessed it — the play circuit.
Understandably, parents are angry about this. The literature on the topic is not as clear as it might be, but the long-term effects of amphetamines may include stunted height, mental health issues (loss of curiosity and joy), and heart problems.
If we want our kids to learn without drugging them (how sad is that?), we must not suppress their play circuit. Play can help them unlearn boredom and recapture joy.
In the future — where careers change more often, and creativity will be the fastest growing natural resource — we’ll need to be more like our hunter-gatherer ancestors.
Our paleolithic ancestors had to be masters over their ever-changing and harsh environments, or they wouldn’t survive. In the future, kids who tap into this power to learn will be self-taught experts, well-equipped to adapt to an ever-more-quickly-changing technological environment.
The scope of what’s economically valuable is tilting toward the four C’s: critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. There will be ever-fewer jobs that require rote memorization and rule-following. This isn’t theoretical: traditional schools, which emphasize cramming for tests and punish free-thinking, are already failing children.
Kids no longer need to be a cog in a machine — we have literal machines for that, and more coming.
Learning fluidly and effectively relies on play. In the future, the most playful among us will also be the most valuable. When kids are allowed to play, they’re given the room to find the pursuit that feels the most meaningful to them.
Meaningful effort can motivate you to do hard things–all with a smile on your face. Playful learning feels effortless compared to coerced learning for complex neurological reasons.
For example, playing releases testosterone, which is a hormone found in both men and women that makes effort and even pain feel good. Think about the basketball player who plays half a game on a broken ankle. That’s because he’s in play mode.
Now imagine that same basketball player forced to do a walking tour of a local historical landmark on a broken ankle. He probably physically couldn’t do it — even if he tried. That’s because the tour doesn’t have the same “play” effect on his brain chemistry.
Great scientists, like Panksepp himself, are often driven to do extremely difficult things (like working tirelessly for over a decade on something that might produce nothing of value) thanks to the feeling of play generated by their love for and interest in what they do.
Play is not running around blowing bubbles (although sometimes it is). People climb Everest for fun. The best kind of play is incredibly hard.
How Play Is Related to ‘Flow’
Another great researcher, Jean Piaget, was the first to study what we now call flow. He called it the “zone of proximal development.” “The zone” for those who play sports.
The chart above helps to visualize what “the zone” means. The zone is the white space in the middle. That’s where you want to be. If things are too hard, you’re in the top gray area–anxious; if they are too easy, you’re bored–the bottom grey area. The zone is when your skill and the challenge are aligned.
However, kids are rarely in flow states during regular school hours because they’re either anxious or bored and have no incentive to find a sense of “play.” That’s the direct result of how the predominant schooling methods try to force kids’ interest (keeping them either bored or anxious as an unintentional by-product of needing order) rather than allowing kids to play to find their own unique zone of proximal development.
Play makes kids want to be, and migrate toward, their unique “zone” in the first place.
Interestingly, the play circuit is repressed if kids are hungry, tired, or emotionally distressed before finding “the zone,” but not after.
You know that’s true — your kids don’t usually feel like playing if they’re worried about homework or would rather be sleeping. However, they’ll forget to eat for hours if they’re already playing outside.
Chronically anxious kids (likely caused by how they were schooled) are much less likely to be interested in “flow” states because they are baseline anxious. They would rather be “bored” to compensate for their dysregulation. Hence, they watch “The Office” for the 50th time instead of doing something more creative.
Here’s the breakdown of the logic: Play helps kids arrive at their unique zone of development. In their zone of development, they are much more likely to find and develop their specific high-value add to the world. It could be to become a doctor, for example. But there are many more ways to add value to the world that are not necessarily pre-paved paths. And, with the majority of future jobs not even existing yet, kids are better off being flexible, playful, and creative.
Play is how you prepare kids for the future of work.
How to Make Your Kids Feel Playful
Forget everything you learned in school. Let’s do something new for the next generation.
Learning isn’t about being anxious, sitting in rows, or trying to get into a better college than your neighbor.
You don’t have to force kids to be interested in learning — it’s a natural human state. If we give our kids the option to follow their playful interests, they will become more interested in learning. As a happy side-effect, our loosened grip on the outcome of “testing high” produces kids who will likely be among the highest scorers on standardized tests. We can truly have our cake and eat it, too.
However, examples of other people doing it will never fully convince you it’s possible for your kids. For that, you have to take a leap of faith. It requires a little courage, but nothing in the world is more worthwhile.
Practically, it means taking kids’ complaints of boredom seriously. Maybe school isn’t the best place for them to thrive. Maybe their urge to get out of the classroom and play is a cry for more powerful forms of learning.