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“Clearly, play seems to be an essential part of social and brain development,” says Panksepp. “It’s only after the need for play has been met that animals are ready to move on to more mature stages of development.”

This research has convinced Panksepp that the restlessness seen in children with ADHD may simply be the children’s way of expressing an innate need for more play. Instead of medicating children to stifle their behavior, Panksepp argues for providing kids with more opportunity to meet that need. In fact, he believes that this could be the key to ensuring their development into focused, socially adept adults.

We don’t expect adults to engage in highly focused mental activity for hours on end without a break. Breaks (in the form of recess) are no less important for kids, and Panksepp’s research suggests that they’re even more important for kids with ADHD.

The idea that play might be exceptionally important for kids with ADD and ADHD is supported not just by observational studies in the classroom. It is also supported by some intriguing research.

To study the relationship between play and ADD, Jaak Panksepp, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at Washington State University, manipulated the brains of young rat pups to make them mimic the brains of children with ADD and ADHD. (Such children often have slightly smaller frontal lobes than children with longer attention spans, though they generally catch up before reaching adulthood.)

His findings: The rats with laboratory-induced DD played more frequently than rats whose brains had not been altered.

Panksepp then divided the rats into two groups: Those who were allowed to play as much as they wanted and those who were allowed only limited play. The results were even more surprising. That rats that wereallowed ample opportunities for play did not become more wild, rambunctious or violent. Instead, they simply played normally and grew up to be non-hyperactive and socially well-adjusted–at least by rat standards.

However, the hyperactive rats that had only limited opportunities for play grew into rather rambunctious rats that had difficulty reading social cues from other rats.

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