The more we understand about the impact that play has on our brains, the better we value the sometimes crazy, chaotic, aggressive, or active play that kids like. Interestingly, the more kids engage in active play, the more self-regulation they achieve!
Kids are given opportunities to play less and less. Schools have reduced or eliminated recess for elementary school kids. Many kids go to before and after school care, where they do homework or play video games. Then they come home, go to extra-curricular activities, eat dinner, shower, and go to bed. They have been deprived of almost all of their spontaneous and imaginative play time!
To further complicate the play reduction, many times when kids are allowed to play, parents interfere, correct, intervene, or alter the natural process of children playing. The beauty of play is that there are natural and built-in checks and balances. Bossy kids are left out. Aggressive kids are shunned. Quiet kids are forgotten. Smart kids are ridiculed just like everyone else. This process is a natural groomer of appropriate behavior.
Recent research shows that more than other types of play, the aggressive and active play is extremely beneficial for brain growth. This is because in several regions of the brain, rough and tumble play results in a massive release of GABA (gamma-Aminobutyric acid). GABA is a neurotransmitter that is chiefly responsible for the reduction of neural excitability.
So, yes, you read that correctly – when kids are aggressive, rough, and active in behavior, they are activating growth in the brain and releasing a neurotransmitter that encourages self-regulation. So, the more often kids play wrestle, pillow fight, tackle, push, or shove, the better their brain becomes at emotional and mental control.
And that is why play therapy is so significant! Kids are given freedom and liberty in the play room that they are not given anywhere else. They can pummel the Bobo, stomp on the baby doll, kill their enemy, stab the bad guy, and bury their friends in the sand without fear of reaction, consequence, or repercussion. And as they play out those scenarios, they are helping themselves stay in control in other areas of their lives.
Play therapy always provides a safe place to practice learning new skills that they require to thrive in everyday situations. And the process of playing is a natural and instinctual need for kids, because they inherently know that they can figure out themselves and the world around them using toys as their words and play as their language.