The New York Times has a good article on Children and Play. If you thought the study of play was something limited to a study of games, you’d be missing out a large group of ‘play theorists’ who study the scientific principles behind play. While we like to think that play actions train us how to perform important tasks as adults (how throwing a stick through a rolling circle makes us better spear throwers), this ‘play as training’ argument seems a little too simplistic (and may be why we’re not very good at making games to teach children adult skills).
Instead, new research is showing that play is related to the growth of the brain and cognitive abilities. John Byers from the University of Idaho found a direction correlation between the periods when young animals play the most and the period when the cerebellum was developing the most: both periods from a chart in the shape of an inverted U where developmental and play activity increases in early adolescence and tapers off in older juveniles (adult animals don’t play much!). Other research on lab rats has supported this correlation, suggesting that play impacts the development of the brain for adult social and living functions.
Of course, there are other things going on in the development of juvenile animals and children than just play including conversation and comfort contact. As a result, the brain development system is complex, and is aided by flexibility and redundancy, two strengths that help ensure there are multiple paths to a solution (though some are easier and more often-traveled than others). This follows neatly with my philosophy that one should create systems with a wide degree of flexibility and redundancy as opposed to constantly pushing to the limits and using just enough to get things done, something that makes a system rather inflexible and prone to collapse (this is why you set the recommended limit of performance on something like an engine far below its actual manufactured performance threshold).
Children and Play is a good article. If you’re more interested in the study of play, check out Brian Sutton-Smith’s The Ambiguity of Play and Johann Huizinga’s Homo Ludens.