Free Play Builds Brains

A Lesson From Caine's Arcade

If you haven’t seen the Caine’s Arcade video, you should watch it immediately. In fact, here it is:

The magic of this video is that transports us into the vibrant world of childhood imagination. Caine’s imagination manifests in an elaborate handmade arcade (his tools: cardboard, tape, scissors, and markers). Watching Caine at work reminds me of my childhood creations, including vast villages in my backyard (my tools: mud, hands, water) and treacherous swamps in the basement (my tools: chairs, blankets, pots and pans).

Free play is brain building fun

It turns out that Caine’s arcade, my backyard villages, and hundreds of other “free play” games, aren’t just fun, they are critical brain building activities. In the absence of preset rules or adult directions, children experiment, make mistakes, adapt, problem solve, and create. This kind of brain exercise isn’t just beneficial during childhood. Child psychologists Dorothy and Jerome Singer have found that childhood creativity is correlated with adult creativity.

Is free play a lost art?

Caine’s summer arcade does a lot more to stimulate language and creativity than flashcards, worksheets, or many educational toys. Yet watching Caine’s arcade made me feel a little wistful. His creation seems a bit like a lost art. Many kids today spend a lot of their days in front of screens (their tools: iPhones, playstations, and Wiis). There are plenty of apps and programs that encourage creativity, but too often kids are sitting in front of screens that do the imagining for them. Dorothy and Jerome Singer found that if you read a child a story and ask them to draw a picture, the picture will be their imagination’s creation. If you show a child a video and ask them to draw a picture, they tend to draw what they just saw. Someone else is doing the imagining.

Encouraging free play

I look at my own 10 month old son and wonder what sorts of worlds he will create fueled by his own imagination. No doubt there will be a million toys at his fingertips that whir, buzz, glow, and do a lot of imagining for him. I am not going to rule out screen time fun, but more often than not I hope to give him some simple tools: cardboard, string, tape, and markers to name a few. I am excited to see what his creative brain comes up with.

Here are more ways to encourage free play.