In play, kids and scientists take big mental leaps

I know a lot of adults who don’t like to cook, but I’ve never met a child who doesn’t enjoy playing with a toy kitchen — or one who doesn’t want to help chop vegetables for dinner. Other versions of practical play: A cousin, at the age of just 4 or 5, asked for only one thing for Christmas — a snow brush. And on a beach trip last year, I witnessed a duo of 2-year-olds squealing with joy at the idea of sweeping the floor.

Behavioral sciences writer Bruce Bower explores some science related to my observations. “Kids like to do real things because they want a role in the real world,” psychologist Angeline Lillard told Bower. Though toy stores may burst with futuristic robots, magical dolls and all things fantastical, research suggests reality play might be a favored form of make-believe.

What couldn’t be addressed in a handful of pages, and would require a tome thicker than Joy of Cooking, is the great variety of ways kids play. Volumes 2 and 3 would cover more of what motivates kids to play, and how they benefit. Bower has previously written about whether action video games can benefit kids with dyslexia (SN Online: 2/28/13), how children take turns during researcher-directed play (SN: 7/26/14, p. 16) and how babbling play between parent and baby might reveal an innate musical sense (SN: 8/14/10, p. 18). Back in 2007, Bower reported evidence that some of the Stone Age curving and crisscrossing lines on the ceilings of caves were created by children, suggesting that this “finger fluting” might have been a prehistoric form of finger painting (SN: 4/28/07, p. 264).

Play is also an occasional topic on Growth Curve, a Science News parenting blog by Laura Sanders. She has written about the importance of unstructured play and, recently, about how too many toys can disrupt a child’s focus. Conversations about play are often intertwined with deep and serious matters: building physical skills, problem-solving, exercising creativity, learning to socialize and process emotions, and enhancing resilience.

And not just in children. Adult play is rich and varied, too — whether it’s sports, the arts, puzzles, the trendiest gaming apps or, a favorite around here, puns. A lot of scientists are expert players. Anyone who has spent enough time in a research laboratory knows that just playing around can be a crucial step to scientific success. Evidence is slim that Albert Einstein ever said, “Playing is the highest form of research.” But he did emphasize the importance of “combinatory play” in “productive thought” — essentially, that a remixing of basic ideas from various fields not obviously connected can lead to valuable insights. Creativity comes when the mind takes leaps, filling in the gaps.

It’s easy to imagine how such playfulness might have contributed to research reported in this issue. How do you mix and match materials to create unusual magnetic properties? Could life have survived on an early, bombarded Earth? How do we make free-floating, 3-D images? What about ultraquick robots made of DNA? And what are the key ingredients in successful cloning? Though differing in degree of sophistication, these questions are similar in spirit to a young child at a play kitchen asking: What will I cook today?

Elizabeth Quill is former executive editor of Science News. She's now a freelance editor based in Washington, D.C.

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