Photo: Alyssa Haywoode for Strategies for Children
Photo: Alyssa Haywoode for Strategies for Children

Last week, NPR Ed — which explores how learning happens — ran a series called Playing to Learn, a multimedia look at “why people play and how play relates to learning.” It’s a delightful summertime look at how play engages and educates children — and adults.

Here’s a sample of the Playing to Learn reports.

Where the Wild Things Play

“Free and unstructured play: It’s vital for children,” NPR host Melissa Block says in the introduction to this report. “Research shows a connection between play and kids’ social, emotional, and cognitive development. But playtime in America’s cities is in decline.”

Fortunately, NPR reporter Eric Westervelt finds a stronghold of play at an adventure playground in Berkeley. It’s a “free-range, public playground” where “kids have to talk to each other, problem solve — and they get messy together.”

But as this report explains, “play is in trouble.” Recess has been trimmed. And play is increasingly more structured and controlled.

There are, however, geographic differences.

“In less litigious Europe there are lots of these kinds of free-range public playgrounds,” Westervelt explains. “They flourished after the Second World War. Europeans more readily embraced spaces for children to engage in what developmental psychologists call managed risk. But in the U.S. today there are barely half-a-dozen adventure-style public playgrounds.”

According to Dr. Stuart Brown, director of the National Institute for Play, “It’s really central that kids are able to take their natural and intense play impulses and act on them and find in the environment the opportunity to engage in open, free play where they’re allowed to self-organize. And it’s really an essential part of being human and developing into competent adulthood,”

Scientists Say Child’s Play Helps Build A Better Brain

“The brain’s executive control system helps regulate emotions, make plans and solve problems,” NPR reporter Jon Hamilton explains in his report. And “for the system to develop properly children need plenty of so-called free play: no coaches, no umpires, no rulebooks.”

The experience of free play “changes the connections of the neurons at the front end of your brain, which are a major part of the executive control system of your brain. And without play experience those neurons aren’t changed,” according to Sergio Pellis, a researcher at the University of Lethbridge in Canada.

Jaak Panksepp, a professor of Integrative Physiology and Neuroscience at Washington State University, adds, “The function of play is to build pro-social brains — social brains that know how to interact with others in positive ways.”

Pellis asks a key question: What’s a better predictor of eighth grade academic performance: social skills or current academics? According to research, Pellis says, “the better predictor is social skills.”

When Kids Start Playing to Win

Competition can get a bad name, especially when winners are bad sports. But as NPR’s Cory Turner reports, the “rush to compete is perfectly natural,” according to Tovah Klein, author of the book “How Toddlers Thrive.” Competitiveness “kicks in around 4 or 5 years old… when kids get really good at one thing: categorizing.”

Turner adds, “Competition is not a dirty word. For kids, it can be a really good thing because managing failure and learning from our mistakes are vital skills in adulthood that we have to be taught as kids. Well, how do you do that? Easy – don’t focus on winning.”

“It’s not all about winning,” according to Kenneth Barish, a clinical associate professor of psychology at Weill Cornell Medical College. “It’s also about teamwork. And it’s about effort, becoming a better player,”

Turner says: “It’s OK for kids to want to win. Adults just have to help them find the balance between winning and – key word here – improving.”

Play Doesn’t End With Childhood: Why Adults Need Recess Too

NPR reporter Sami Yenigun says a big reason that adults play is that “play is social. It’s how many of us maintain our social well being. Not just board games but soccer leagues or paintball in the woods. Not just after work, but team building exercises in corporate offices.”

And Brown, the head of the National Institute for Play, says “couples who sustain the sense of mutual playfulness with each other — and that that’s significant for each — tend to work out the wrinkles in their relationship much better than those who are really serious.”

According to Brown, “What you begin to see when there’s major play deprivation in an otherwise competent adult is that they’re not much fun to be around. You begin to see that their perseverance and joy in work is lessened. And that life is much more laborious.”

For more ideas about adult play, NPR has posted a “Find Your Happy Place” quiz.

Adults in the Boston area can play at the Boston Children’s Museum on Wednesday, August 27, 2014, from 6 to 9 p.m. That’s when the museum will host the Boston Grown-ups Museum. “Come play in our groundbreaking exhibits while enjoying beer, wine and tasty treats for purchase. Bring friends and meet new ones as you explore interactive exhibits, attempt to build a ‘big kid’ sized fort, and explore your inner artist in the Art Studio.” Participating adults will need to bring I.D. to prove that they are 21 or older. Tweet about the event using the hashtag #BostonGrownUpsMuseum.

To find out more about children’s play, check out the Alliance for Childhood, which has a number of articles about play posted on its Facebook page.

Or just pick a game and play it; the benefits promise to be considerable.