THE BLOG
04/23/2013 01:23 pm ET | Updated Jun 23, 2013

The Business of Play

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Peru is one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, making it an appropriate home for this week's "Delivering Growth, Strengthening Societies" conference, organized by the World Economic Forum in Lima. The event will be an opportunity for Peru to showcase the leadership role it is playing in pioneering business innovations with models of social development.

Today, April 23, 2013, the day before the main conference, a group of Young Global Leaders from the Forum will get a chance to see this leadership in action. These leaders, including the likes of a top Mexican investment banker and a Colombian senator, will meet with representatives of a 15,000-strong group of Peruvian kids between the ages of 5 and 17 who have organized a national campaign against violence. Together they will build a model community out of LEGO bricks and present their vision to opinion leaders in the hope that their ideas will be met with action.

The kids and their adult allies will make an evidence-based and a moral case for why a different kind of childhood, one free from violence and filled with playful learning, is the key to the kind of innovation that can drive economic prosperity in this century.

The first to support this case are leaders from the field of neuroscience. Dr. Jack Shonkoff and his team at Harvard's Center for the Developing Child have shown how persistent violence and adversity in the early years of life affects the brain. One effect is the over-development of the parts of the brain responsible for survival. Another is the under-development of the areas that control things like cognitive function and empathy.

This pattern presents an enormous problem for a private sector in which, according to McKinsey & Company and the Harvard Business Review, "innovation is the only insurance against irrelevance." It is precisely skills such as creative problem solving and teamwork that lead to innovation and require enhanced cognitive function and empathy. In other words, if young children do not grow up in a safe and healthy environment for learning today, businesses won't find the talent they need to stay competitive tomorrow.

However, before corporate leaders engage in supporting the youngest citizens, it's important to understand that some kinds of learning environments are more likely to produce innovators than others. Contrary to the practice in many homes and educational institutions, the magic ingredients are opportunities for play and creativity.

In his book Creating Innovators, Dr. Tony Wagner of New York University studies the lives of standout entrepreneurs, many from the technology sector. Dr. Wagner finds a developmental arc common to the subjects of his research, which he describes as evolving from play to passion to purpose. In doing so, he affirms what many early childhood advocates have said for years: that play is serious business.

There are proven strategies to change the arc of childhood in exactly the right direction, many of which focus on supporting parents and caregivers to apply what the Peruvian kids have called "a pedagogy of tenderness." For example, the Turkish Early Enrichment Project achieved a reduction of 73 percent in the use of physical punishment over a four-year period through parent support and training. In Jamaica, children served by a parent support project focused on play and nutrition in the 1980s now demonstrate higher IQs, better mental health and lower rates of crime than their unserved peers. And in the United States, three of the most rigorous longitudinal impact studies have demonstrated long-term returns of $4 to $9 for every dollar invested in quality early learning programs for low-income children.

While it is true that there is a lot of good news going into this year's World Economic Forum in Lima, it's important to remember that Latin America continues to have one of the highest rates of interpersonal violence of any region in the world. As Albert Einstein once said, problems like these cannot be solved by the same type of thinking that created them. However, they can be solved by minds that grow up safe, healthy and playful -- a message that corporate leaders would do well to rally around during their meeting this week.

Michael Feigelson is Programme Director for the Bernard van Leer Foundation. Michael Renvillard is Program Director for the LEGO Foundation.