Free Play the Key to Developing Fluid Intelligence in Kids Fluid intelligence is what will help your child succeed amidst uncertainties and challenges

As parents we want our kids to be happy and successful and we try our best. Unfortunately, best in parental lexicon means scheduling and controlling every aspect of their lives leaving very little time for free play.

This in your face parenting detrimentally undermines a child’s innate sense of explorative autonomy, curiosity, creativity, and problem-solving skills. They become programmed robots lacking fluid intelligence. Simply, unable to deal with the curve-balls life throws at them.

And guess what, neuroscientists now claim free play will help develop your child’s capacity for response flexibility or fluid intelligence.

Free Play the Key to Developing Fluid Intelligence in Kids
Free play allows a child to imagine and think which helps develop fluid intelligence

So What Exactly is Fluid Intelligence?

In the 1960s psychologist, Raymond Cattal proposed the idea of two distinct types of intelligence – crystallized and fluid.  According to him, fluid intelligence or fluid reasoning is the ability to think abstractly, identify patterns, discern relationships, and solve problems.

While crystallized intelligence is the ability to use the knowledge and experiences acquired over time in long-term memories in typical activities.

Simply put, fluid intelligence is your creative innovators like Steve Jobs, and crystallized intelligence is the guy who topped his class but ended up in a humdrum job.

All great innovators, inventors, and artists seem innately blessed with fluid.intelligence. Though fluid intelligence is not easily quantifiable it determines a leader from followers.

Furthermore, according to the Cattell-Horn Theory, fluid intelligence grows during childhood and peaks in early adolescence. Studies show enough free play is the key to nurturing your child’s fluid intelligence.

Here’s why according to Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology and a leading expert on play:

“Too often, we underestimate the importance of activities that help kids learn to negotiate with others, explore the world, or invent new ideas. These are things humans do better than computers, and play helps us develop that.”

Whether solo or group, play helps kids focus their attention which in turn helps develop their working memory. Now an efficient working memory is correlated to high fluid intelligence.

Play and Working Memory

Working memory is often referred to as an active mental workspace. It’s a cognitive system that allows us to hold and manipulate information during problem-solving or other cognitive activities.

Dr. Matthew Cruger, senior director of the Learning and Development Center at the Child Mind Institute defines working memory:

“It’s keeping in mind anything you need to keep in mind while you’re doing something.”

Also, during unstructured play where kids are allowed the space to do just what they wants, whichever way they want, without interference; their brains are unshackled from rigidity and conformity. This allows for the development of greater neuronal interconnectivity. The more lee-way they are allowed during play the more thinking fluidly develops as children adapt and adjust to any changes they may encounter.

Imagination and Social Agility

In the course of solo free play, children learn to cope with being alone and using their imaginations to build the tallest building or like Alice in Wonderland have tea with a rabbit. All great innovators need to have active imaginations to dream the impossible.

While playing in a group children need to understand the underlying rules and how to negotiate through tricky situations. They learn to read social cues and manage conflict. Steve Jobs had the ability to convince people,  to help him accomplish his vision. He had imagination and social agility to see the bigger picture and convince his detractors. Fluid intelligence about reading social situations and getting things to work for you.

I remember as a child I would play my favorite house-house alone for hours. And when my cousins came over I’d have to negotiate and imagine how best I could accommodate them into my scheme of things. I think those early years of free play gave me the resilience to adapt and survive the later abusive period in my life.

Not surprisingly, play is closely related to divergent thinking, which explores many possible solutions and typically generates creative ideas. Divergent thinking is a critical component of creativity and innovation.

Motor Regions – Key Role in Fluid Intelligence

Moreover, dynamic play like swinging, jumping, running, sliding which specifically involve the cerebellum—increased working memory by 50 percent. And working memory is a vital component that facilitates creativity and fluid intelligence.  Rigorous free play also helps stimulate our vestibular system which is critical for the processing of information.

Nonetheless, many play-oriented movements have the capacity to improve cognition and mental agility. And studies have proved there to be a connection between movement and learning.

kids play fluid intelligence fun feel good hormones
Play helps reduce cortisol and increase feel-good hormones which help fluid intelligence

Dopamine, Play, and Brain Neurons

Play helps reduce cortisol and releases feel-good hormones – endorphins, dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin. Rigorous play is like a good work-out you experience what is now called runners’ high. I remember feeling euphorically energized after play.  Even now those childhood memories of playing can change my state of mind.

According to studies, dopamine secretion may help with working memory and attention control, crucial for the development of fluid intelligence.

Additionally, play triggers the release of BDNF, brain-derived neurotrophic factor. This natural substance enhances cognition by boosting the neurons’ ability to communicate with one another. The novelty of play helps new brain wiring blossom and make unique connections.

Sir Ken Robinson – Is play important?

Power of Play

Nonetheless, play is not a waste of time. Play is a necessary part of normal development, all cognitively advanced animals play.  It allows the young to acquire all skills needed in life: motor, sensory, social, cognitive.

During free play children learn to be alone, they learn to focus, they learn to adapt and most importantly they learn social skills. Remember, play is the precursor to learning. Curiosity, imagination and proprioceptive movement help integrate both sides of the brain leading to better cognition.

Jean Piaget once wrote:

“Play is the answer to the question: how does anything new come about?” When we provide opportunities for—and allow time for—children’s self-initiated play, we are ensuring the full development of their
curiosity, their imagination, and their creativity.

So parents don’t fret, aside from mindless video games, play is good for your child, It is critical to your child’s well-being and later success.

Image Source: Pexels and Pixabay

Additional Reading:

The Gardener and the Carpenter – Alison Gopnik

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