The power of play

We’re born to play for a reason and it shapes our brain from the cradle to the grave

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".

Biological drive
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.

When gaming is driven, compulsive and excludes other possibilities of social interaction or interaction with nature, “I would say it is pathological play”.

While we are born with an intrinsic drive to play, it takes environmental factors to kindle it. Brown, who will be a keynote speaker at Early Childhood Ireland’s Global Gathering next month (see panel), gives the example of an infant responding to a mother’s smiling face.

"The infant will see that face and feel safe and respond in a hard-wired, universal way, with a smile and some gurgling noises and the mother will also respond. That process in the baby is emotionally pleasurable – wants to be repeated and is also associated, as a baby moves into older period, with a similar response to a mobile overhead or an object that is shiny."

Infant interactions
All future play is going to build on the base formed by those interactions between mother and infant.

“If there is no mother, and there is no face and there is no holding and no touching and no music and no sound, then you have a baby who is going to be in trouble,” he says.

Tolerance for play in younger children is high in most cultures, he observes, except, increasingly, when it comes to rough and tumble play. Children are missing out on this formative experience because it is often misunderstood.

There are signals in rough and tumble play – squealing of children during chasing, shouts from those wrestling on the ground – that can be mistaken for aggression and cause adults to step in and stop what is an essential educational process for youngsters.

“They learn the roots of empathy in early rough and tumble play without a lot of consequences,” points out Brown. It teaches them languages of play, which, if not learned well, diminishes their ability to deal with the give and take that is a normal part of socialisation.

As children grow older they are under pressure to knuckle down to academic study by adults who see play as the opposite of work – instead of recognising it as essential for learning and creativity. In fact, play will continue to shape our brains – for as long as we let it.

"Even people with dementia will find some joyfulness and alternatives in play – they are not 'undemented' but they get happier. It works our whole life cycle."

Play deficiency
Symptoms of play deficiency, both in children and adults, include a lack of interest in the environment, irritability and poor response to inter-personal stress. These may also be symptoms of something more complex but within that there is usually a discernible lack of play, he says.

The amount and kind of play needed will vary from child to child, according to temperament.

“The introverted child can be happy doing isolated activities that don’t appear to be particularly playful to the outsider but which, to that individual, may be very good.

“The extroverted, exuberant child may need to be running around and playing hour after hour in order to get a sufficient amount. It becomes a judgment call on the part of the parent or the teacher as to what is adequate.”

Drive for success
In the drive for children to succeed, parents squeeze out play at their peril. If your older child, say 10-12, is very busy with ballet, music lessons, homework, gymnastics "and that child is not joyful in those experiences – look out. You are invoking a highly successful, depressed adult," he warns.

Likewise, in the teenage years, among students under great pressure to perform well in exams, there is often a “smouldering depression and a loss of joy which is indicative of play deficiency”.

Workplaces are slow to recognise the benefit of play, even though there are studies demonstrating how playfulness boosts productivity.

The joy of finding novelty through play is part of what makes us creative and innovative creatures, Brown says, which is really important for our ability to adapt to a changing world.

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.

Although taking time out to play is important, Brown stresses the value of “infusing your hourly, daily life with playful capabilities – so there is not this rigid separation between work and play”.

In western culture, the attitude is to keep them separate, he adds. “If that becomes a fixed adult pattern, I think there is play deprivation.”

Putting play under threat

Play is "under threat" in Ireland as it is being squeezed out of children's lives,
according to the chief executive officer of Early Childhood Ireland, Irene Gunning.

Children are spending more time on academic subjects, competitive sport is being introduced at a younger and younger age, and there is huge growth in passive electronic gaming.

“We think these things are more important but in fact they don’t sustain us the way play does. Play is the basis of all learning.”

For Gunning, the title of Dr Stuart Brown's book, Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul, says it all and it's why she wanted him as one of the keynote speakers at the organisation's forthcoming Global Gathering.

“I believe we should seek to promote play at every opportunity because of the benefits – physical, social, cognitive and emotional – to children.”

The three-day gathering, under the title “Today’s Children, Tomorrow’s World, Turning Points?”, takes place on October 17th-19th, at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin.

The opening day, when Dr Stuart Brown will speak, will focus on the power of play.

For those interested in attending, see the full programme and how to register on

The seven patterns of play

In the interaction of infant and parent – smiling, gurgling and baby talk – the right cerebral cortex, which organises emotional control, is “attuned” in both.

Body movement:
Through play and movement, we think in motion. For instance, leaping upwards teaches you about both your body and gravity. Play-driven pleasures associated with exploratory body movements sculpt the brain and prepare the player for the unexpected and the unusual.

Curiosity about, and play with, objects is a fun and evolving pattern of play. It has been shown that as skills in manipulating objects – throwing stones, banging on pots – develop, so the circuits of the brain become richer.

“The science of progressively more complex object play and its relation to overall competency has sparked research interest in corporate ‘work readiness’, in that a deficiency in fixing things by hand during one’s youth may well mean deficiencies in complex problem solving in challenging work settings as an adult,” according to the National Institute for Play.

This is a vital aspect of play, from the romping around of small children to complex banter among adult friends, which can be broken down into three forms
. Firstly, play creating a sense of belonging; secondly, rough and tumble play that provides the roots of empathy and the "give and take" of social interaction; and, thirdly, celebratory play, which may be observed at a child's birthday party, among a music festival audience or big match crowd.

Imaginative and pretend:
Something we associate with small children, but it remains key to innovation and creativity throughout our lives.

Helps us make sense of the world, from when we are listening as a child in our parent’s lap, to watching a film or reading a best-seller as an adult.

Stories “give us permission to expand our own inner stream of consciousness and enrich our personal narratives with pleasure and fun”.

Fantasy play can transcend the reality of our ordinary lives and help to germinate new ideas. For instance, at the age of 16, Einstein is said to have imagined what it would be like to ride a sunbeam at the speed of light.

Source: The National Institute for Play in the US. See for