Just the other day, I was walking near a park
close to our home and heard what I can only
describe as the joyous squeal of a toddler who’d just gone down a slide.
And I’ll always remember the look of pure joy
on the face of our Golden Retriever, Lucy, as she chased after a tennis ball.
This is the joy of play. By definition, play is purposeless and it’s fun.
As we become adults though, taking time out of our busy schedules for the
purpose of play feels like a guilty pleasure – more of a distraction from “real” work and life.
Dr. Stuart Brown, a recent guest on one of our Learning Well radio shows, has
found that play is anything but
It is a biological drive as integral to our
health as sleep or nutrition. In fact,
our ability to play throughout life is an extremely important factor in
determining our success and happiness.
Study of Play
Dr. Brown has spent his career studying animal
behavior and conducting more than six
thousand “play histories” of humans from all walks of life – from serial murderers to
Nobel Prize winners.
His book, Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, explains why play is essential to our social skills, adaptability, intelligence, creativity, ability to problem-solve, and more.
Play is hardwired into our brains and is the
mechanism by which we become resilient, smart, and adaptable people.
has profound implications for child development and the way we parent,
education and social policy, business innovation, productivity, and even the future
of our society.
Research and Play
Research has determined that when animals are
play-deprived, they don’t develop a normal brain. For instance, rats are
hardwired to play in their juvenile years, just as they are hardwired to flee
and hide when they smell the odor of a cat.
In one study, rats were divided into two
groups: one group was allowed to play while the other was prevented from it. When
a collar saturated with cat odor was introduced to the two groups, all rats
fled and hid.
The rats that weren’t allowed to play never
came back out and died. The rats that were allowed to play carefully came out,
slowly looked around, and survived.
In another interesting scenario, that was
captured in a series of photographs by a German photographer, a 1200-pound
polar bear with a fixed, predatory look, approached a group of tethered
But the fixed and rigid behavior of the bear,
which often results in a meal, changed when one of the female Huskies did a
play “bow” and started wagging her tail.
They ended up pawing and playing together and
the bear returned each day for five more days to continue the play. An
incredible differential in power was overridden by a process of nature that’s
in all of us.
Play is instinctive and suppressing it makes
children and adults more vulnerable to depression, anxiety, and impulsivity.
Some of the benefits of play include developing
trust, empathy, optimism, flexibility, attunement, three-dimensional thinking,
perseverance, emotional regulation and resilience, imagination, openness to
receiving inspired “aha” moments and problem-solving skills.
Importance of Play for Problem Solving
Speaking of problem-solving skills, Nate
Johnson, who taught auto mechanics at a high school in Long Beach, California,
noticed that many of his students couldn’t solve problems or fix cars.
After observing this behavior and having
discussions with his students, he concluded that those students who couldn’t
solve problems had not worked with their hands or fixed things when they were
Johnson recently teamed up with neurologist
Frank Wilson to consult with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. If the lab is
looking for a research and development problem solver, they will pass up summa cum laude Harvard or Cal Tech
graduates if they didn’t work with their hands early in their lives.
Why Is Play
Important for Us Now?
All the research has shown that lack of play
when children are young can have a dramatic and negative impact on their future
development, but why should we include play in our life now?
According to Dr. Brown, the research is clear
on this front as well: lack of play makes us more vulnerable to depression,
anxiety and impulsivity even in the years past 60.
And the benefits of play are many: the ability
to be more optimistic, flexible, resilient, and open to receiving inspired
“aha” moments and problem-solving skills.
So, whether we throw a tennis ball for our dog,
invest in a coloring book and some crayons, or get lost in a creative project,
we’re continuing to help our brains and our bodies as the years go by.
As Dr. Brown has said, “Our heritage as humans
is to play. We are built to play and built by play.”
What are the first, joyful images you have of
yourself playing? Are you able to have moments of play in your life now? If so,
what kinds of “play” do you enjoy? Please share with our community!