What’s happening inside your kids’ brain while they play? These rat craniums give us clues

by Elizabeth Moreno

For most of us, we look back on our elementary school days with fond memories of that blissful stretch of time after lunch of unbridled freedom.

But for some kids in Orange County, Florida, recess is becoming a myth of the past. The NBC Today Show recently featured the district of 23 elementary schools where recess was being cut to 30 minutes or, in some cases, eliminated all together. School administrators blame standardized testing. With more and more pressure put on the scores coming out of schools, some are swapping play time for classroom time to cram in extra test prep. And parents aren’t happy about it. “Five-year-olds not getting recess is nothing short of abuse,” district parent Angela Browning told the Today Show.

There’s a wealth of research to back Angela up — to show kids really do need play. They do better in school and grow up to be more capable adults when they have plenty of early play experiences. But from a neurological standpoint, what exactly is happening in a kid’s brain when they fly around a merry-go-round that results in these outcomes? In the case of the Orange County school district perhaps a more important question would be: what happens to a kid’s brain when they don’t get to play every day?

That’s actually a pretty tricky question to answer. For obvious reasons, we can’t deprive kids of play and then pick apart their little brains to see what’s going on in there. Fortunately, we aren’t the only species that plays. Animals play too, and since we share so much in common with many mammals, we can learn a lot from studying them. So what have we learned so far?

David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust by Jan Videren is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Well for one thing, psychobiologist neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp can tell you with scientific certainty that a rat’s favorite pastime is a good-old-fashioned wrestling match. Panksepp has spent his life’s work playing games with rodents. He’s most well known for his discovery that when tickled, rats emit high frequency chirps indiscernible to the human ear. In other words, they laugh. Just like us. And when wrestling, their chirps measure at 50-kHz — the mathematical equivalent of a giggle fit.

In his study of rat play one of Pankseep’s most significant discoveries has been that the play drive lies in a deep, primal part of our brain — the part that governs key survival skills. In one study, he surgically removed the entire prefrontal cortex of young rats and watched what happened when set loose in their play pens. While the part of the brain responsible for higher order thinking — and much of their social skills — was totally gone, these rats played just as much as their cranially intact peers. According to our brains, play is just about as important as food or sleep.

Clearly eating and sleeping are essential for survival, which is why they’re in that part of the brain. But play? Why is the play drive so intrinsic to life that it exists in such a deep, primal part of the brain? For decades scientists have been scratching their heads to figure out why.

Fox Play by George Denning is licensed under CC BY 2.0

From an evolutionary standpoint, it doesn’t really make sense for animals to play. For one thing, it’s costly. When a lion cub pins her brother to the ground or a baby elephant slithers around in a mud pit, they’re using up calories — energy they could otherwise use to grow bigger. What’s more, play is dangerous. We’ve all watched enough nature documentaries to know that the frolicking baby impala obliviously wandering away from his mother is only foreshadowing grizzly scenes of the cheetah’s dinner.

Evolution systematically eliminates any behaviors that limit an animal’s chance of survival unless it serves a vital purpose. While the play drive may lie deep in our primal brains, the results of play seem to affect the front end — the more sophisticated, higher order thinking part of our brains.

Sergio Pellis, a researcher at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, has done extensive research on the effects of play deprivation. To do this, he raised group of rats in complete isolation — with no access to each other, and therefore no chance to play with each other — and then tested how they compared to their peers with more playful childhoods…or shall we say…puphoods?

Anyway, when Pellis dissected the brains of play deprived rats he found that the front end of their brain — the sections of the brain responsible for higher order thinking — was more immature than their peers. “The experience of play changes the connections of the neurons at the front end of your brain,” says Pellis, “And without play experience, those neurons aren’t changed.”

“The experience of play changes the connections of the neurons at the front end of your brain,” says Pellis, “And without play experience, those neurons aren’t changed.”
Two young chimpanzee playing by Tambako The Jaguar is licensed under CC BY 2.0

That front end of our brain is host to a wide variety of functions, including the our decision making, planning, problem solving, reason, social and emotional development — all processes vital to survival.

Pellis’ theory is backed up by one of the earliest studies of animal play, carried out by Harry Harlow in the 1960s. Harlow and his students found that monkeys raised without early peer play experiences demonstrated stunted emotional and social skills as adults. When introduced to new environments or peers, they would react either with excessive fear or aggression.

But when animals are raised with plenty of early play experiences, they thrive. “The function of play is to build pro-social brains, social brains that know how to interact with others in positive ways,” Panksepp explains. He suggests play is the means by which animals to learn to navigate social hierarchy — necessary knowledge for finding mates and avoiding getting kicked out of the pack. Social skills, it seems, are more than good manners. They’re vital to survival.

“The function of play is to build pro-social brains, social brains that know how to interact with others in positive ways,”

So let’s get back to our original question — what happens to a kid’s brain when they don’t get to play every day? From what the science of animal play has shown, we’d be wise not to risk finding out. Culturally, recess is seen as an extra, a luxury of sorts — far less important than academic learning. It’s often the first thing cut when schools must squeeze in extra instruction for standardized testing and a “privilege” taken away from trouble-makers. But how would we react if lunchtime was taken away as a punishment or skipped so teachers could cram in a little more test prep? According to the science, the difference is slim.

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