The power of play
We’re born to play for a reason and it shapes our brain from the cradle to the grave
Dr Stuart Brown at play: ‘It is probably no coincidence that humans are the most playful of all species. While the drive to play in adulthood is diminished, it does not disappear.’
Rose Martin and Irene Gunning, chief executive officer of Early Childhood Ireland. Gunning believes ‘we should seek to promote play at every opportunity because of the benefits – physical, social, cognitive and emotional – to children’.
Rough and tumble: Children learn the roots of empathy in early rough and tumble play without a lot of consequences, according to Dr Stuart Brown of the National Institute for Play in the US. Photograph: Getty Images
Everybody in the Dún Laoghaire shoe shop looked around as peals of delighted laughter rang out from a small boy posing with his big brother in front of a “magic” bendy mirror.
But the little fella was oblivious to the attention he was attracting, engrossed as he was in the distorted body images being reflected back to him. He was cavorting in front of the mirror for the pure pleasure he was getting out of it – and radiating a joyfulness that was contagious.
It was an unexpected setting for a glimpse of the “state of being” created by play. It is this altered state, according to Dr Stuart Brown of the National Institute for Play in the US, that triggers the many benefits of play.
“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” is a proverb going back hundreds of year but now there is an emerging discipline of “play science” to prove its truth. And to “dull”, we could add potentially “depressed” and “dangerous”, as we learn more about the effects of “play deprivation”.
Play is a biological drive and when it is suppressed, we suffer, particularly socially, says Brown. “Just as sleep deprivation leads to sleepiness and fatigue, play deprivation is harder to identify but has its negative consequences also.”
Brown, a psychiatrist, developed a life-long interest in the power of play after he was appointed to a commission to look into the background and motivation of Texas mass murderer Charles Whitman. An engineering student and former US Marine, 25-year-old Whitman shot dead 17 people at the University of Texas in Austin in August 1966, having first killed his wife and mother.
“We did an incredibly detailed review, including going back three generations, looking at his life in as much detail as possible,” Brown tells The Irish Times, speaking from his home in Carmel Valley, California, ahead of a visit to Dublin next month.
It was a revelation, he explains, that Whitman, a bright and very capable young man, had a very over-bearing father and “an impossible life situation”, which thwarted his natural play drive.
“His father always had an agenda in which he had to fit. His life was totally controlled and scripted; that kind of suppression prevents the emergence of what I think are the benefits of play.”
This prompted Brown to do a lot more research on imprisoned convicted killers, matching them with a comparative group on the outside with similar life stories, but who had not been involved in crime.
“The play history difference between the comparisons and the murderers was stark,” he recalls. The absence of play appeared to have a very significant effect, particularly on socialisation and handling of aggression.”
Specialised scientific research
When Brown retired from clinical medicine in 1989, he decided that play deserved much more specialised scientific research, in the same way phenomena such as sleep and dreams are measured, and he founded the National Institute for Play.
“The benefits of healthy play are profound and have been built into our nature for zillions of years. It is there for a good reason even though it appears on the surface to be purposeless. That’s a paradox.”
So how does he define play?
“It’s voluntary, done for its own sake, self-organising from within the individual, gives pleasure, takes one out of time pressure and the outcome of what you’re doing is not as important as what you’re doing,” he replies.
“It can be interrupted; it’s not driven; it’s not compulsive and it is not done to please others but to please yourself.”
Sport may, or may not, count as play. It depends on the coaching and the pressures involved, he says.
If love of the game and personal effort are not part of the process, and it’s all about kicking the ball into the goal, “period”, rather than kicking the ball because it feels good, “it becomes less play and more performance and anxiety producing”.
Electronic gaming can be categorised as play too.
However, Brown admits that as “an older guy with entrenched attitudes towards screen play”, he does not think it as healthy as being outdoors and enjoying three-dimensional play, with social contacts, and with vocal, auditory and olfactory components coming into the brain.