Why we need play

“The opposite of play is not work — it is depression.”
- Brian Sutton-Smith

BeWell spoke with Dr. Stuart Brown, founder and president of the National Institute For Play, about how play lights up your brain, improves your mood and connects you to the world.

Why is play necessary?

Play is a survival drive that is necessary for adaptation, flexibility and social learning. Play helps us belong in the community, develop the ability to suppress unwanted urges, and regulate our emotions.

Is play important for grown-ups?

Most people tend to think that play is confined primarily to childhood, and my sense of the paleo-anthropological design of being human is that we are neotenist creatures. We are designed to be juveniles until we die and that is part of our primate design as Homo sapiens. When we honor that design, we tend to be less violent, more communal and healthier.

Taking time off to play does not mean you shirk your responsibilities, or that you aren’t a good parent or a good productive citizen. In fact, it’s just the opposite: your level of agitation drops when you get playful, which tends to increase perseverance and mastery. Play has a real payoff.

What can we learn from animals and their clear play signals?

In the animal world, the non-players do not do as well as the players. For example, observe social rats, which are very playful creatures (surprisingly). If you suppress their normal rough-and-tumble play — which occurs very vigorously from the age of 4 weeks to 15 weeks —and reintroduce them into the rat pack, those rats are really incapable of managing stress and they don’t find their place in the pack very well. They are either overly aggressive or shy to the point of avoidance. They don’t mate and really don’t survive very well.

So, if you look objectively at what play is doing — by stopping its presence, you see that play is allowing a sense of where you belong in the pack and how to become an integrated member in the social order. It becomes evident that play, particularly early development play, is a fundamental survival drive; when it is suppressed, there are social and learning consequences.

Play naturally starts at a very young age, and yet modern children are under considerable pressure to be serious and excel. Are we missing something important?

Whenever the unique, intrinsic motivation of the child is not honored and the child is lock-stepped into a performance to please the adult ambition model, something very precious and authentic for that child’s future is lost… or at least needs to be recovered later. A child’s intrinsic motivation is driven by play, which really begins to shape who and what they are. Thus, when play is not given a fair shake, the individual loses something very important.

For those of us adults who may have forgotten how to play, how would you recommend we get back in touch with that part of ourselves?

In the last class I gave at Stanford, we had students review their own early play memories and they tried to remember the purest forms of joyfulness and play in which they engaged as little kids.  By connecting with those memories — whether it was a vacation, a birthday party, first bicycle, or a game they started, they were able to find ways to incorporate play into their lives.

All of these early play memories reside in each of us and can be connected in some way to the real life that you’re living now. Start by asking yourself, “How can I connect with those joyful, out of time, pleasurable, voluntary experiences?”

…any final thoughts?

We are designed to play. As I said in my book (Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul), we are built to play and built through play. It is important to connect to play if it has been lost — and many of us have lost it. I certainly did as a medical student. The transformations that occur when people honor play are truly profound.

Looking for more ways to play?
The Stanford Health Improvment Program is offering a Summer Creative Play Workshop

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