Play deprivation


As I’m doing so much research into digital learning, I decided to try a MOOC to have first hand experience. So I signed up to the FutureLearn Exploring Play course, led by the University of Sheffield in partnership with others including the British Library and Museum of Childhood. It’s already quite fascinating, and extraordinary to be communicating with hundreds of people commenting (there are c.15,000 students signed up I think). To keep hold of my own thoughts as I take the course, rather than lose my thoughts in long comment threads, I started a Tumblr blog.

It’s interesting that it’s such a popular course. It seems to be a reaction to an overwhelming repression of play in school systems, and for other critical reasons, across the world. There is also a research zeitgeist demonstrating the benefits of play. There have been a few articles and pieces of research in the news that raise questions about the effects of play deprivation on children and young people.

The most important research is this by Dr David Whitebread et al at University of Cambridge, called The Importance of Play. This is a major research synthesis and consultation with experts across 8 countries, which gives strong evidence for the value of play. It argues that children suffer neurological damage when they are stressed and deprived of play, that formal schooling should not start too young (4 years old in UK is far too young).

This neurological research about states of curiosity and the dopaminergic circuit was useful for reinforcing what wasn’t news to me. Brain scans showed that people are better at learning information that they are curious about. A curious state is having a feeling of intrinsic motivation to learn something.

Research by the Education Endowment Foundation, costing £1.6 million, hoped to prove that giving children financial rewards would motivate them to study. They found it makes no significant difference to GCSE results, unsurprisingly. In some cases, the effort increased but it didn’t result in higher achievement. They conclude that what makes the difference is how pupils are taught. You might add that children need intrinsic motivation, not extrinsic rewards such as money or the promise of better job in future.

A new book by Tanith Carey called ‘Taming the Tiger Mother: How to put your child’s wellbeing first in a competitive world’ has been published.  In her article about it she says: “It is not just the fact that educational toys do not help. A growing number of experts take the view that they actively deprive children of the time and brain space they need to learn more vital skills, which is provided by open‑ended and imaginative play. While it is true that leaving a child in a darkened room with no stimulation means it will not develop as many brain connections, the flipside is not that the more you expose them to educational stimuli, the smarter they will be.” She refers to biologist John Medina: ‘Making learning and playtime stressful is counterproductive, adds Medina. “The more stress hormones swarm children’s brains, the less likely they are to succeed intellectually.”’

I’m interested in how our politicians try to problem-solve skill deficits by targeting education. They think that you can plug a skills gap by insisting that a subject or skill be taught, and that it be taught directly rather than laterally, intellectually rather than practically, to the youngest of children rather than waiting until they are interested. The trouble is, by reducing time for play and increasing stress, they are reducing the capacity to attain curious states.


3 thoughts on “Play deprivation

  1. Bridget, thanks for writing and sharing the references. We explored this when we developed the Curiosity gallery at Life (thanks again for your early contribution). Some research we took to heart (by Elizabeth Bonawitz at Berkeley) looked at the effects of instruction on curiosity, finding that providing instructions for a novel toy had the effect of stifling exploration (see There’s another good summary of the field by Alison Gopnik from 2012 ( or summarised here: These all broadly agree with your conclusion that the pressure to “teach” young children is probably misguided and possibly harmful.

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