Monday, October 16, 2023

Finding the Play Spot

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Behavior, Science & Society, Nature of Science

Ed Hessler

Advocates of play rightly believe in the importance of play in general. On the science education front much is made of its value and use in learning about STEM. A whole raft of early education materials have been developed to help young students learn STEM principles and to help teachers who are interested in facilitating such learning.

So it is easy to forget that play has other benefits -- social benefits. And in light of the fact that much learning in science education involves small group activities. I also note that many scientists work in groups as they develop hypotheses, test their "truth"(evidence for or against the hypotheses in question) as well as the strength of the evidence.

Sam Jones, writing for the Washington Post (reprinted in the Star Tribune on 9.24. 2023, paywalled). The article is about what studies of rat brains show us about the role of play. Rats play a lot both young and old. The article is titled "Rat Brains Show Crucial Role of Play."  The essay finds its basis in a new study in Neuron with the formidable title, " Play and tickling responses map to the lateral columns of the rat periaqueductal gray," a mouthful. 

The 20 p. paper is available in a PDF. That region of the brain, the "periaqueductal gray" is known as PAG.

At the top of the publication is a diagram, an inbrief on what the article is about, and four highlights. The authors open the paper by stating "Of all classes of mammalian behaviors, play is one of the least understood at the neurobiological level. While we have a rough idea about the neural loci responsible for sexual and aggressive behaviors, fear, reward, sensory processing, and even cognition, we cannot delineate the neural circuits underlying play as of yet. We know from extensive cortical lesion studies that play—much like other mammalian behaviors—can proceed without the cortex. ... In this study, we investigate the role of the periaqueductal gray (PAG) in play behavior by ouch and tickling the rats. 

The illustrations in the paper take some study but I think you can make sense of what is happening to the PAG during  various interventions. In addition, you can learn about the authors and their institutional affiliation as well as their contributions to the paper. 

Jones includes some of the findings while at the same time including other findings, e.g.,

--play is deeply ingrained in the brain

--words that have been used to describe play behavior

--healthy brain development in human childhood and its benefits

--the occurrence of play in other animals (even wasps and social spiders)

--the importance of play "for the development of executive functions such as emotional control, awareness and response inhibition."

--the dire consequences linked (correlated with, I assume) to its lack in growing up. Briefly reviewed is the research of psychiatrist Stuart Brown. He (and others) investigated what led to a 25-year-old man to kill and wound others (many) when he targeted them from the clock tower, in Austin.

- Brown has since studied "certain inmates - murderers - none of whom had engaged  in 'rough-and-tumble play' which helps us 'deal with hostility' and getting along. The work is based on clinical studies rather than scientific research. Brown is the founder of the National Institute for Play (1996).

The lead author of the study Natalie Gloveli intends to "examine the PAG in other animals ...  to begin connecting the still elusive brain circuitry that underlies play." Sergio Pellis and Stuart Brown author of a widely read book on play, call our attention to the importance of free play (note free) - something that's happening less and less in schools" Organized sports "is not the same as free play." Now to some possible benefits; negotiation with friends on deciding what to play, how the play is to be done, rules, what happens "when one of us breaks the rules?"
Timmy Broderick wrote a very good piece about this study for Scientific American, July 28, 2023 which includes a video where you can hear "ultrasonic rat giggles." I used a phrase from that story to title this entry. And here is a YouTube presentation Stuart Brown gave about eight years ago  titled "Play is More Than Fun" (14m 49s).

Play, a benefit to all of us including STEM learning as well as learning about fair play in life as well as STEM behavior - groups in school; groups in science..

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