Brick by brick, six-year-old Alice is building a magical kingdom. Imagining fairy-tale turrets and fire-breathing dragons, wicked witches and gallant heroes, she’s creating an enchanting world. Although she isn’t aware of it, this fantasy is helping her take her first steps towards her capacity for creativity and so it will have important repercussions in her adult life.


  Minutes later, Alice has abandoned the kingdom in favour of playing schools with her younger brother. When she bosses him around as his ‘teacher’, she’s practising how to regulate her emotions through pretence. Later on, when they tire of this and settle down with a board game, she’s learning about the need to follow rules and take turns with a partner.


  ‘Play in all its rich variety is one of the highest achievements of the human species,’ says Dr David Whitebread from the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge, UK. ‘It underpins how we develop as intellectual, problem-solving adults and is crucial to our success as a highly adaptable species.’

  “玩耍嬉戏,以其各种各样的丰富形式,是人类这个物种最伟大的成就之一,”英国剑桥大学教育系的David Whitebread博士这样说。“它为我们如何成长为有智慧、能解决问题的成年人奠定了基础,也对我们成功地成为一个有着高度适应能力的物种起着至关重要的作用。

  Recognising the importance of play is not new: over two millennia ago, the Greek philosopher Plato extolled its virtues as a means of developing skills for adult life, and ideas about play-based learning have been developing since the 19th century.


  But we live in changing times, and Whitebread is mindful of a worldwide decline in play, pointing out that over half the people in the world now live in cities. ‘The opportunities for free play, which I experienced almost every day of my childhood, are becoming increasingly scarce,’he says. Outdoor play is curtailed by perceptions of risk to do with traffic, as well as parents’ increased wish to protect their children from being the victims of crime, and by the emphasis on ‘earlier is better’ which is leading to greater competition in academic learning and schools.


  International bodies like the United Nations and the European Union have begun to develop policies concerned with children’s right to play, and to consider implications for leisure facilities and educational programmes. But what they often lack is the evidence to base policies on.


  ‘The type of play we are interested in is child-initiated, spontaneous and unpredictable - but, as soon as you ask a five-year-old “to play”, then you as the researcher have intervened,’ explains Dr Sara Baker. ‘And we want to know what the long-term impact of play is. It’s a real challenge.’

  “我们所感兴趣的那类游戏是儿童自己开启的、自发进行的和不可预测的——但是,一且你让一个五岁大的孩子‘去玩儿吧’,那你作为研究者就已经是进行了干预,”Sara Baker博士这样解释。“而我们想要了解游戏的长线影响是什么。这是个真正的挑战。”

  Dr Jenny Gibson agrees, pointing out that although some of the steps in the puzzle of how and why play is important have been looked at, there is very little data on the impact it has on the child’s later life.

  Jenny Gibson博士表示同意并指出:虽然在游戏究竟何等重要、以及为什么如此重要这个谜题中,有一些阶段已经得到了审视研究,然而在它对儿童之后的人生究竟产生何种影响这个方面,还是数据寥寥。

  Now, thanks to the university’s new Centre for Research on Play in Education, Development and Learning (PEDAL), Whitebread, Baker, Gibson and a team of researchers hope to provide evidence on the role played by play in how a child develops.


  ‘A strong possibility is that play supports the early development of children’s self-control,’ explains Baker. ‘This is our ability to develop awareness of our own thinking processes — it influences how effectively we go about undertaking challenging activities.’


  In a study carried out by Baker with toddlers and young pre-schoolers, she found that children with greater self-control solved problems more quickly when exploring an unfamiliar set-up requiring scientific reasoning. ‘This sort of evidence makes us think that giving children the chance to play will make them more successful problem-solvers in the long run.’


  If playful experiences do facilitate this aspect of development, say the researchers, it could be extremely significant for educational practices, because the ability to self-regulate has been shown to be a key predictor of academic performance.


  Gibson adds: ‘Playful behaviour is also an important indicator of healthy social and emotional development. In my previous research, I investigated how observing children at play can give us important clues about their well-being and can even be useful in the diagnosis of neurodevelopmental disorders like autism.’