How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the
and Invigorates the Soul*
By Stuart Brown, M.D.
(with Christopher Vaughan)
Book Summary by Susan Gail
Play is the swing off
the rhythm in music, the bounce in the ball, the dance that delivers us from the
lockstep march of life. It is the 'meaningless moment' that makes the day
memorable and worthwhile. I believe we live in a playful universe.
-- Stuart Brown, M.D.
Part One: why play?
Chapter One: the promise
The joy of play. We
intuitively recognize the spirit of play in another human being, and animals
recognize it, as well.
Play is powerful,
pleasurable and energizing to us. When we play, we renew our optimistic selves
and become open to new possibilities.
Scientists now realize how
profound is the biological process of play...shaping the brain, increasing
intelligence and adaptability, empathy and socialization. Play is the heart of
A key factor for being a
fulfilled human being, is remembering how to play, incorporating play into our
daily lives, and not feeling guilty about it as we get older.
Play serves as a catalyst
to making us happier and more productive.
Individuals and corporate
managers alike are discovering the benefits of play, not only for personal joy
and creativity, but also for problem solving as a team. There's a magic in play
that captures a sense of adventure and engagement with the world.
Living within our
authentic "play personality" brings us the power of creativity and artistic
Chapter Two: what is play,
and why do we do it?
What is play? I hate
Play is a primal activity
at its basic level, it's hard to define it. Play's a beautiful thing, and the
joy of play is understood in experiencing it.
In attempting to speak to
professional skeptics, such as engineers, you need charts, graphs and data
spelling out the properties of play.
1: It's apparently
2: Play is voluntary, done
for its own sake
3: Play's attractive,
because it feels good to play.
4: It gives you freedom
from time constraints
5: consciousness of self
diminishes and you can even imagine a different self as you get into the flow of
6: Play is improvisational
by its very nature, so it provides an arena for trying out new behaviors, seeing
things with new insight and creativity.
7: Play is fun, so the
desire to keep experiencing the pleasure continues
Scott Eberle, an expert on
play, from Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, NY has devised a
six-step play process he believes humans go through. Play elements:
1: Anticipation: Curiosity
about what might happen, sometimes coupled with slight anxiety over risk-taking
2: Surprise: the
unexpected discovery or insight
3: Pleasure: feeling good
4: Understanding: gaining
new knowledge and integrating new ideas
5: Strength: Feeling
empowered by the new experience and understanding
6: Poise: Feeling a sense
of balance and grace
Describing the process as
a wheel, Eberle says that when we reach the stage of poise, we begin all over
again with something new.
Most definitions of play
fall short. You can't understand play without the feeling and emotion side of
it. The main thing is, anyone can do it.
Why do we play?
Animals give play signals.
Even a polar bear and a sled dog can understand the nature of play and have been
observed playing together. Play is such a powerful force in nature, that it can
overcome the instinct for survival and hunger.
biology of play
Humans also have a
built-in impulse to play. A play signal is sent out, such as a smile, giving the
invitation to engage with another in the spirit of play or to join the other in
Play in the animal
Pulling together the
commonalities of play in both humans and nonhuman animals, and the research
going on, we find world-renowned expert in animal play and behavior, Bob Fagan,
along with his wife, Johanna, at their study site on Admiralty Island in Alaska.
Going there in 1992, through the support of the National Geographic Society, we
watch and try to absorb the immense and intricate work of this meticulous
observer of animal play.
After watching brown
grizzly bears in play mode, and in talking to Fagan, it becomes apparent that
the bears are playing because it's fun.
Play is fun; it makes life
joyful, beautiful...and while it seems purposeless, longtime study of play in
the animal kingdom reveals its purpose.
Play with a purpose
Play has an advantage that
offsets its danger. The more play, the greater the survival factor. One theory
is that play allows practice of survival skills. But play also allows animals to
socialize and make sound judgments about trusting another animal and also about
With humans, the playful
interaction includes verbal jousting to explore the social boundaries between
teasing in friendly manner or taunting to be mean.
The brain on play
Andrew Iwaniuk and John Nelson of Monash University in Melbourne, Australia
discovered a link between playfulness in animals and brain size. Those with
larger brains played more.
Play researcher Jaak
Panksepp suggests that play stimulates nerve growth. Animal play scholar John
Byers analyzed the relationship of playfulness with brain development and the
corresponding rung on the evolutionary ladder of each species. The activity of
play stimulates the brain and contributes to the cognitive functions of language
processing, awareness of musical rhythm, attention span.
Much of play involves
simulation of life activities through imagination acting out different
situations. Simulations can be created through the vehicles of sports, books,
art, physical activity, movies and more.
Neural scientist Gerald
Edelman's theory is that the brain integrates new information via a network of
"maps" (encoded in networks of interconnected neurons) that allows us to
recognize the generalization of "treeness," for example. These perceptions are
not static. They change, and play provides a rich orchestration for creating
these neural maps and connections. Play helps us make sense of the world and how
As children we play, and
as adults we continue to play as we engage our adult imagination in our internal
stream-of-consciousness thought process and our daydreams of future events. Play
helps create new cognitive connections and combinations.
The importance of playful
investigation on brain development was studied back in the 1960s by Marian
Diamond, a researcher at UC Berkeley. Her landmark studies showed that rats,
raised in an enriched environment, had larger, more complex brains. They were
Her work demonstrated the
importance of the play factor in creating smarter rats. The smart ones played
with a variety of "toys" and socialized with other rats. Diamond attributed this
basically to the rats having toys and friends, with active play being the key to
brain development, not passively observing the environment around them.
In humans, as well, it is
clear that babies and young children thrive on playing and socializing, not
simply being exposed to a variety of stimuli. Actual play activities are the
critical factor in developing a healthy brain.
As play continues
throughout life, it helps wire the brain to create new neural connections, with
the fittest connections being the ones that survive.
REM sleep (dreaming sleep)
appears to be part of this higher brain functioning organizing process, helping
stabilize the brain and improve memory. A good night's sleep, studies show,
helps for recall after learning something.
REM sleep happens more
frequently during times of rapid brain development, and play also is more
prevalent during this time after birth (childhood), seemingly to continue the
evolution of neural connections and the creation of new ones.
Play and sleep both appear
to stabilize body and social development in children, and s to organiz brain
development and adaptability over the long term.
The drive to play
The impulse to play is a
biological drive like sleep, food or sex. If play is denied over a long period
of time, we tend to become depressed and unable to feel pleasure. A play deficit
is like a sleep deficit. And, there is the same need to catch up or experience
"rebound" play as there is for sleep.
All in all, the brain
works better when we get enough play. We're more creative and we feel more
optimistic about life. We enjoy the novelty of play just for the fun of it. This
sense of play has contributed to many inventions, from steam engines to
airplanes, from fireworks to clocks.
Chapter Three: We are
built for Play
We are built for play, and
lack of it turns us into couch potatoes. Even the lowly sea squirt, whose
primitive nervous system closely resembles that of our earliest human ancestor,
stops moving as it grows into adulthood, attaches itself passively to a rock and
wastes away, digesting its own brain.
When the sea squirt stops
moving, or animals stop playing, the brain stops growing.
In humans the brain can go
on developing after adolescence when we play all life long.
Playing the hand
While play is crucial to
the development process, creates and tests neural connections, helps discover
and form innate skills, and provides a social context for learning, it can also
Despite its cost, play has
benefits that outweigh them. Animals become smarter and more adaptable when they
play. For some animals, the play period ends with their juvenile period, because
of these costs. But in the game of life, the hand must be played, win or lose.
Will the skills learned be passed along?
Humans continue to extend
the juvenile period. If play is a primary characteristic of being juvenile,
keeping us growing and adapting, what if we maintained these qualities
throughout a lifetime?
The Labrador and the
C.J. Rogers, an animal
researcher in New Mexico, in a study of wolves and dogs, showed that wolf and
dog pup behavior is nearly identical. Wolf pups are similar in action and looks
to a Lab or golden retriever. When wolf pups are moving into adulthood, the
focus turns to pack formation and status level. Dogs, though, continue the
pattern of stretching out (neoteny) the juvenile period into adulthood, which
brings adaptability to change and continuing curiosity.
Humans are much like
Labradors, in that we are youthful primates. Young chimps look like human
babies. But in adulthood they look more like Neanderthal ancestors. Humans
retain the baby face lifelong, and we act more like chimpanzee infants, as well.
This "retained immaturity"
quality allows for higher capacity for neuron growth, and therefore maintaining
our youthfulness. Wolf behavior works better for surviving in a challenging
environment. For dogs, neoteny brings adaptability to coexist with humans, but
also more vulnerability.
Neoteny has allowed humans
to continue playing lifelong. Our juvenile period is now as long as 15 years,
Neorogenesis, for a person in a stable environment, can continue throughout
life, as long as we are involved in play activities.
play in adulthood
As adults, aspects of play
can seem like work and vice-verse. True play means feeling in-the-zone, playing
for the sake of it. Runner's World has characterized four types of
runners: the competitor (who runs to compete with others or self), the socialist
(who runs as a social activity), the exerciser (who runs to stay in shape) and
the enthusiast (who runs for the joy of it). The internal experience differs for
Since play is more like a
state of mind, it can seem like play or it can seem like work – depending on how
we look at it, or the activity we are engaged in. Truly playing means our heart
is in it. We are in sync – with ourselves and those we are playing with.
Work can be play. Like the
laboratory work of Nobel laureates Roger Guillmin and Jonas Salk, work can be a
giant sandbox for play, if the joy is in the project or the discovery.
The work we love is often
an extension of what we loved in our youth.
what is your play
Archetypes of play
personalities might be put into eight categories:
1 – The Joker:
The joker loves
the nonsense aspect of play, and, like actor George Clooney, loves practical
2 – The Kinesthete:
loves to move, thinks better when moving, and thrives as an athlete or a dancer.
3 – The Explorer:
loves to continue exploring the world - as when a child – either physically
traveling to new places, emotionally in finding new levels of meaning, or
mentally. exploring new arenas of knowledge.
4 – The Competitor:The
competitor enjoys the thrill of the game and plays to win.
5 – The Director:
The director is
the organizer, party giver at best, and manipulator at worst.
6 -The Collector:
wants to have or gather together the most interesting or best objects or
7 – The Artist/Creator:
artist/creator purely enjoys making things...making something beautiful,
functional or making something work.
The storyteller is the
performer, who makes themselves become part of the story, and whose realm is the
The fate of the sea
Opportunities to play are
everywhere as we continue to express that drive within us. Experiencing play
makes us less prone to dementia, heart disease, Alzheimer's, and other health
problems. When we stop playing, our behavior becomes fixed. This often happens
in the decades of the sixties and seventies. Those who stay sharp are those who
keep on playing and working. We energize ourselves and feed our spirit when we
continue to play. When we stop playing, entropy takes over, and we begin to fall
Part Two: living the
Chapter Four : parenthood
to child's play
A core in-built play
nature in childhood can morph into our individual play personality, if left
unfettered. The joy of exuberance in play, however, can be lost, as we grow out
of our childhood. Many of us lose this capacity. We leave it behind. Retaining a
playful approach to life as adults often depends on how parents look at it.
Parents who've realized that this was missing from their own lives, often work
to get it back, and also to provide a better play atmosphere for their children.
First, we have to remember how we played as children, how we felt, and then go
on to create a playful household.
Play at the beginning of
Even before birth, while
in the womb, our neural circuits are developing. The playfulness of the mother
during pregnancy can affect the mind-set of the baby and studies show that the
health of the mother (the prenatal environment) has a multigenerational effect
on IQ, heart disease risk, and other health issues. Fetal movements, seemingly
random, are considered expressions of play.
1 – Attunement:
In a safe environment,
where the mother is stress-free and calm, a harmonic bonding takes place when
mother and baby gaze at each other. The baby smiles, and the mother smiles back.
Locking eyes in this gaze, they are synchronizing neural activity, attuning
their brain rhythms. This can also happen with fathers.
The state of joyful union,
experienced by baby and parent, is akin to the primary state of play, and
becomes the foundation for increasingly complex states of play throughout our
This bonding – as
researched by UCLA's Allan Schore – is essential for emotional self-regulation
in adulthood, especially in forming healthy attachments. It also has
implications for stress management.
2 – Body and movement
play, such as squirming, rocking and crawling, are not random movements. They
are behaviors intrinsic to exploring the environment. Babbling leads to
Movement exists in all
aspects of play. It is how we know ourselves in our world. We think in terms of
movement. It's so internalized (our place in the world, space, time) that we
forget how much of our thinking is based on movement.
The qualities of learning,
adaptability, resilience and innovation are fully realized through movement.
"Movement fills an empty heart," said Bob Fagen. Movement helps get people into
a play state, and play-driven exploratory movements help sculpt the brain in
matters of motor and mental dexterity – important for language fluency.
3 – Object play:
with the hands is a pattern of play that helps the brain become better suited
for problem solving.
4 – Imaginative play:
stories through imaginative play is integral to children, beginning at about age
two. Children gleefully move between reality and pretend. Eventually the line
becomes more solidified between the two. Imagination continues to nourish the
spirit, however, and in adults it's recognized as the stream-of-consciousness
storylines we create for ourselves. Such fantasies help us remain creative and
resilient, as well as develop empathy and compassion for others.
5 – Social play :
Social play is
important for a society to function well and for its citizens to maintain good
6 Friendship and
Social play begins with parallel play among children, so that by the age of
four, their cooperative play periods help develop their empathy for others.
7 – Rough-and-tumble play:
rough-and-tumble play is now known as a crucial element in the development of
our sense of cooperation, fairness and social awareness. This fact is largely
unappreciated, especially on the part of preschool parents. A
Texas study revealed an
absence of rough-and-tumble play in the early lives of young murderers.
This kind of friendly or
play-fighting that characterizes rough-and-tumble play ...such as kid's games of
the "good guys" and the "bad guys"... is valuable in establishing cooperative
socialization. Joe Frost of the University of Texas has designed playgrounds
within playgrounds that include areas for young children for graduated
exploratory play, along with rough-and-tumble play and games, as well as areas
for quiet, solitary play.
Frost explains that adults
do not often distinguish between active aggression and play fighting. Children
know the difference, he maintains. While rough-and-tumble play lessens as
children grow up, adults engage in sports, games and other activities that are a
natural extension of rough and tumble type play.
8 – Celebratory and ritual
Celebrations, such as birthdays and holidays, develop good memories in children,
which adults later enjoy as an "official" excuse to play.
9 – Storytelling and
narrative play :
Storytelling is a function
of the left hemisphere of the brain and a way to integrate pieces of information
about why things are the way they are in our world. This capacity remains
important as adults, to help us make sense of things. Storytelling is a play
state transporting us into a timeless, altered state of pleasure.
Transformative-Integrative and Creative Play:
Play is transformative.
Through play we can go through a doorway to a new self, try out different
behaviors and ideas, and free ourselves from certain patterns. Fantasy play,
daydreams, visualization and creative play can lead to pioneering inventions and
new pathways for society to follow.
The life and death of
Charles Whitman, in August
1966, shot and killed 15 people and injured 31, before he was gunned down at the
in the worst massacre on a college campus until the one at Virginia Tech in
An ex-Marine, Whitman had
been the youngest Eagle Scout in the history of the Boy Scouts, and had been a
loving husband and father. In investigating his true nature, it was discovered,
not surprisingly, that his father was in a mode of over control on the family
and afflicted constant abuse on Charles' mother.
What stood out over
extensive interviews with the people in Charles' life, was a lifelong lack of
play. He had none of the experiences of other kids with imaginative play, nor in
parallel play as a preschooler. His father was in constant control at home. The
fear engendered kept normal play patterns from emerging.
Rather than play outside,
he had to stay inside and practice piano, and when out with his mother, the
father was monitoring them by CB radio. If friends came over, Charles would be
asked to give a piano recital for them.
Charles did nothing from
within himself. He could never play freely. Everything fell into the bounds his
father expected from him. Inwardly, Charles was seething.
This is an extreme case of
parental overcontrol. Some measure of control and supervision is necessary for
children to feel safe and protected while playing freely, knowing that order
will be restored afterward. In many tribes, this role is filled by the
Throughout school free
play enhances growth and learning. The necessity of play is often overlooked,
with the cultural pressure for success. Activities such as music, art, physical
education are reduced or eliminated in schools, when the neuroscience of play
suggests this is the wrong outlook for the creativity and innovation needed for
today's work force.
The absence of play,
maintains Jack Panksepp, could delay brain maturation or disrupt it, damaging
the frontal lobes in a manner seen in human attention-deficit/hyperactivity
disorder (ADHD). Panksepp suggests a connection between lack of play –
specifically the rough and tumble, vigorous kind – with ADHD.
Learning and memory
Play enhances learning
and, as many teachers know, play activities can help students learn complex or
boring subject matter. Play also helps enhance memory, as indicated by
performance outcomes in students who had adequate recess/play time.
The longest running TV
show Sesame Street has demonstrated over four decades the power of
playfulness. The show includes a mixture of fantasy, humor and real life
Gifts of play
Parents worldwide are
familiar with children being more interested in playing with the box, than with
the gift that came inside. This demonstrates a healthy play drive, using the
imagination to play with the box...a blank slate...which can be in fantasy,
anything they want.
For play to be authentic,
it must come from within us. Play powerfully harmonizes all the influences
within us, helping us to integrate them and find our own way.
Adults over 45 remember
the self-organized play that most all children experienced...exploring, playing
spontaneous games. This kind of play is rare nowadays, with kids' activities
being organized and supervised by adults.
But kids will manage to
find their play domains, since the drive to play is so strong. Suppressing it or
controlling it rigidly may be a greater risk for their long term development.
Coming into adulthood:
sophomoric rites of adolescence
Being pulled in opposite
directions in adolescence, kids are expected to become skillful enough to live
independently as adults, yet retain their unique sense of self...separating from
their parents, while remaining emotionally close as well.
During adolescence, the
brain experiences phenomenal neural growth. Adolescents tend to develop a unique
perception of the world around them. This brain growth continues beyond the
adolescent years, during which time kids are expected to be successful in
school, handle jobs, volunteer work, sports, etc and yet find their way through
Our internal play compass
is what produces feelings of competence, not being pressured to perform. In the
rush to succeed in school, many students give up things they enjoy.
As it turns out,
play-based activities are fundamental for lifelong satisfaction, and the feeling
of autonomy and joy. Sports can provide an arena for powerful training in the
game of life. Other areas include band and orchestra, drama and debate,
art...all great character building activities.
From child to adult
Rites of passage from
child to adult can include jobs or experiences like Outward Bound can help us
discover our own path and learning self reliance.
Chapter Five: the opposite
of play is not work
The opposite of play is
depression, coming from being overwhelmed by responsibility. Work and play
should be mutually supportive. The quality they have in common is creativity.
Recognizing the need for play within our work environment is the key to making
Recreational play outside
of work helps keep everything in balance, including work. And it's nature's way
to create neural networks, and in turn, helps us be creative and discover
solutions to life issues.
Play at work:
Aspects of play are
essential to the work environment, contributing to creative work solutions,
often providing the teamwork necessary for work to be beneficial and productive
for all involved, allowing for full competition against other teams, both inside
and outside the company.
Creativity and innovation:
creativity and innovation, which corporations recognize now is crucial to
growth. These are the kind of ideas that change our world and our culture. Even
a small innovation shifts the way we think or do things.
mysterious because its so paradoxical. Among the hallmarks of creative people
are the ways they can focus, yet see the big picture; or they may be experts in
their area, while welcoming new information; or they've an ability soar off into
imagination, while keeping their feet on the ground. They bring ideas together
from a variety of places.
creativity. It inspires serendipity, blending reality and fantasy. There are a
wide range of factors involved in understanding creativity and play in regard to
companies including early play memories, brainstorming (if done in a playful
context), nurturing new ideas and methods (allowing company mavericks to be the
bridge for those).
Play can be a guide to
mastery, as it leaves you open to serendipity and welcoming the anomalies that
result in new discoveries. Work, when involved with play, is not a grind.
Working for the joy of it, by keeping a playful stance, allows you to reach the
top of a discipline because you're driven by the passion of what you do.
Why, then, to we lose this
playfulness? Our culture pulls us away from this natural tendency to play
because of careers, having families, moving up the work ladder, parent care,
child care, community and religious obligations, and even working out to stay
healthy. A crisis or meltdown can happen at any time, not just in midlife, but
in the 20s, 30s, or even in adolescence because of overpacked schedules.
Eventually, the question
comes back to, "Is that all there is?" In being pulled away from play, we are
pushed away from it because of a culture that doesn't recognize or respect the
innate human need for it and that it's not a waste of time. We don't allow
ourselves to have fun. Amazingly, we even become hostile and defensive to the
idea of play. Usually that response comes because of being deprived of play,
which leads to an unconscious , defensive reaction...realizing what's been
missing in our lives.
Joy is a core essential
for a human being. To understand you might have missed out on this life
component can be devastating.
When looking at their play
history, and in beginning to understand the importance of play, many people find
it emotionally unbearable to think of it being that crucial, and so the idea
gets squashed. This happens in so-called serious fields, like medicine, where
the playful Patch Adams types are rare.
Because of this lack of
understanding about the nature of play and its importance, we become subversive
in our approach at work. If we really enjoy the work, this might seem
disrespectful to those feeling overloaded, or that you're being a Pollyanna, or
don't care about losing your job.
It's nonsense to think we
can't enjoy our work and have fun at the same time. We should find the same joy
as we did as kids making paper airplanes. We should heed the warning if we
aren't feeling the lightness in our work. If we sense a play deficiency, we
should pay attention to the signs, with as much alarm as a high blood pressure
or blood sugar reading.
Getting it back:
How do we get the joy
back? How do we jump-start play? Any kind of movement helps us get past our
mental defensiveness. Regular physical activity helps get out of depression and
self-doubt, if even a short walk or playing with pets or kids.
But in the long term, you
need to take a journey into your past to help you figure out your play avenues
that will fit you now. What did you enjoy as a kid? How did that make you feel?
And then, feel that emotion because that will keep you afloat.
What activities can you
find that feel like "heart play" to you. What speaks to your soul?
Once you find that playful
self again, and it's in your work, you become a powerful figure. It can be
transformational, as in the case of Al Gore, who undid his stiff persona and, in
An Inconvenient Truth, did the work that fueled his soul.
Your North Star, the
emotion of play, will guide you on your life journey.
Chapter Six: playing
Play, as a cornerstone for
relationships, helps in both marriage and long-term friendships.
In the beginning:
The play factor in
relationships begins with mother and child and their mutual, joyful encounters.
This provides the foundation for intimate relationships throughout life.
Play in adult
Play signals in humans – such as smiling (but not staring), extending the hand
of friendship, a hug, a kiss on the cheek – invite mirroring by the other
person, and a mutual bonding to take place.
Non-engaging behaviors can
include avoiding eye contact, or trying to look busy.
Play signals, however,
invite an emotional connection with the other person.
Such a playful attitude
can be a personal decision, as a way to help others feel better in any
Some play behaviors that
allow us to open up include teasing and joking, which inject humor into a
situation, thus going directly to our emotional center.
Love potion no. 1:
Researchers say there
are three different brain systems in connection with sexually oriented love.
Erotic love (lust) comes
from the sex drive and is nonspecific and immediate. Romantic love is oriented
toward one person and results in great feelings of energy and euphoria.
Attachment is a comfortable connection to another that remains after the
preceding levels have faded. All three types are independent of each other.
Play can infuse a fresh
spark in a long-term relationship, helping to deepen it even further. A sense of
humor and playful activities help buoy up our relationships.
Play as a sex symbol:
Play as a
sexual trait has been discussed by biologist Geoffrey Miller, who believes that
art, music, sports, drama are all aspects of the natural mating display of
humans, like the peacock's tail.
While the arts and
humanities have survival advantage as products of the drive to play, looking at
them as useless in an evolutionary sense, ignores the way these activities
produce emotional intelligence, helping us to grow and adapt. Artists of all
kinds are attractive because they clearly demonstrate the human desire to be a
Play and partners:
The term "player" in
dating is unfortunate, in that it indicates an invitation to an emotional
response without giving back.
Romance and attachment:
The force of
romantic love is a strong force, with addictive qualities. Play has a moderating
effect on the emotion of romantic love, and helps keep things in balance. Being
in love has its downside of pain, as well. Love-sickness can actually cause one
to become ill. A broken heart can reduce immunity, while playfulness in romantic
love reduces that vulnerability.
The Coolidge effect:
novelty. The Coolidge Effect (providing a playful amorous boost) comes from a
story about Calvin Coolidge and his wife, Grace, and their playful
talk...non-routine, novel. Novelty heightens dopamine (which enhances pleasure)
in the brain.
Chapter Seven: does play
have a dark side?
What if our sense of play
turns on us and becomes destructive? We might doubt the wisdom of playfulness.
We might be scared to look silly, feel guilty about spending time playing,
thinking others see us as immature. What if play gets out of hand?
Play theorist Brian
Sutton-Smith thinks that play can have a dark side, and can result in
underhanded behavior, sadism and cruelty.
But, by its nature, play
has been shaped by evolution toward an optimistic, exploratory world outlook
trending toward social interactions that are more harmonious. Sadism is not
play, nor is behavior driven by compulsive qualities.
Bullying is an example
people give of destructive play. This is not play. The basic aspect of play is
the desire to keep it going, which is where self-handicapping comes in, in order
to keep it going.
No matter the activity, if
it's violent, domineering or aggressive, it's not play. Humans, by nature,
desire fair play. We win or lose, but we do it with a sense of grace, shaking
hands in the end.
Games find gaming playful
and games can positively affect brain development. The concern comes with its
sedentary nature and isolation from real-world interactions, which is a deep
human need. Humans need to move, to physically sense the dimensions of time and
space, gravity and object resistance.
The hand and the brain
need to work together neurologically. Hands-on manipulation of objects is
critical to brain development. Research is showing that our brain reacts
differently to three-dimensional objects than to computer screens. The potential
for addiction with gaming is also present, especially if the person is gaming to
escape some psychic pain.
However, it doesn't mean
it's the dark side of play, just as obesity doesn't indicate a dark side to
food, just that three-dimensional play is a better type of play.
Waking up to the
importance of regular play can be life changing, finding ways to integrate play
into our daily lives.
Breaking the rules:
Play isn't necessarily
always wonderful, because there are dangers and people can get hurt. Even in
rough-and-tumble play , involving either boys or girls, however, adults are
often too quick to step into the fray. We get clues from the kids whether it is
authentic play or not.
teachers with sound information about rough-and-tumble play and the health
aspects will help both teachers and parents what's normal and not.
carries on into adulthood and can enhance healthy relationships, with such
behaviors as teasing, joking, kidding. Teasing lets you go to the edge, without
hurting...and it's a learned social skill. It can get a bit uncomfortable, but
you know its basis comes from love. It's a complex playful behavior that can
indicate emotional closeness.
Play is also about
stepping outside the box, experimenting with different patterns of thought and
behavior, but true play is never sadistic or domineering.
Chapter Eight: a world at
Watching lionesses in
rough-and-tumble play on the Serengiti Plain is more like watching a dance, or
choreographed play. Witnessing their joy – unique to this behavior – gives a
primal feeling of spiritual divinity. Finding joy in the creative dance of two
cats, like the lions playing in the dream of Santiago, the fisherman in
Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea, the essential nature of play is the only
thing that remains.
The birthplace of humans,
the great plains of
is where our primate ancestors began to playfully imagine and create language,
learning to tell friend from foe, adapting, developing survival skills.
Perhaps through play we
will find ways to survive in our world today. Play establishes a groundwork for
cooperation, nourishing empathy, compassion, caring, trusting, sharing.
Play reduces levels of
violence, creates avenues of communication...not only between countries, but
also between groups of people, such as marginalized kids in Los Angeles, as
discovered in Nate Jones' (master mechanic) program, where he uses play
technique to get kids to loosen up and get into the spirit of play, which is
cooperation, changing the dynamics of a juvenile prison atmosphere.
We play as we take part in
cultural activities: music, dance, drama, festivals, books, art. Play begets
innovative ideas, allowing us to adapt to the changing world around us.
Today we're coming into
the age of the creative economy, with the knowledge economy falling away. Other
cultures are equally knowledgeable in education, analytics, computer technology.
Countries like the United States, France, Germany, Britain, Japan and the
Scandinavian nations have an advantage because they will continue to be
innovative and invent solutions. Creativity comes from the ability to play.
The good life
We need play to launch a
fulfilling and magnificent life, a life in which we are true to ourselves and
our world. We live a satisfying life, with our needs met, yet being able to give
to others. In participating in something greater than ourselves, we live an
expanded lifestyle, we're happier people. We know that play affects every aspect
of our lives.
We know we need play, and
we know when we're not getting enough. Play brings a feeling of lightness to our
core being. It helps us deal with paradox. We follow our bliss, as Joseph
Campbell put it, the path that inspires us on the deepest level, whether it is
pleasurable...a peak experience...or not.
Play is bliss, and we're
grounded in happiness when we give ourselves over to regular play experiences,
whether we enjoy biking and hiking or reading scientific literature.
It's important to fit kids
into nature experiences, to get a feeling for its novelties and wonders, and to
discover the fun that even a little discomfort can bring. Play helps make all of
life better. Life becomes our playground when work is our play and play is our
Some ways to bring play
into your life:
1 – Take your play history
– get back in
touch with what brought you joy in the past.
2 – Expose yourself to
play – Find
opportunities to play every day. Truly stop to smell the roses.
3 – Give yourself
permission to be playful, to be a beginner – Give yourself permission to let
go, not worrying about appearing silly. Allow yourself to go through the awkward
4 – Fun is your North
Star, but you don't always have to head north--
Lots of play isn't fun –
camping, sailing, art work...all require maintenance and include frustration.
Yet it can be transforming.
5 - Be active –
Move. Walk. Throw a ball. Jump-start play by doing something active. There's
power in play to heal a broken heart and to build new neural pathways.
6 - Free yourself of
fear – You cannot play in a state of fear or tenseness. Find safe
havens...where you can be alone and indulge in daydreams, to problem solve and
help unleash your life force.
7 - Nourish your mode
of play, and be with people who nourish it, too – Discover the kind of
player you are and practice playing. It won't be easy if you're out of the
habit. Take time out to play, and be wary of play killers and build your
environment, however possible, to nourish your playful spirit.
At play in the world
Discover your play
personality, like medical doctor Bowen White, whose life was transformed by
Patch Adams. White found a clown within that had been dormant since his college
days, but which he uncovered and used successfully in humanitarian pursuits, as
well as in acting venues before medical audiences.
He continues with charity
work and with Patch Adams, visiting orphanages and children's hospitals, where
they connect with their play spirit. White says he needs this kind of
experience, because you are in touch with the two elements – play and love –
which open you heart, enabling you to better cope with life's challenges.
Play brings us the joy to
connect with our deepest, best self and to recognize it in others. The most
profound expression of play is love. The more that is realized, the better the
world will be.
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