Why We Must Play

why play is important

Written by Michael Richardson

Charles Whitman was a married, 25-year-old engineering student at the University of Texas, described as a “model citizen.” He was an Eagle Scout, and served as a Marine Sharpshooter. An early-age intelligence test showed he had an IQ of 139.

In 1966 Charles went to a tower overlooking the UT campus and started shooting people, killing 16 and wounding many others. That a man like this would suddenly commit such an atrocious act baffled the nation.

A team of experts assembled by the Texas governor came up with one interesting conclusion among the causes: Charles did not play enough in his life. Raised in an abusive and authoritarian home, he was deprived of many opportunities afforded to other children.

Dr. Stuart Brown, who was on the governor’s team, said that the committee unanimously identified Charles’ lack of play as a “key factor in his homicidal actions.”

Play is not given much thought in the scientific community, nor in the adult community at large, for that matter. It is dismissed as something kids do, and tied to irresponsibility.

But a small number of researchers are beginning to show the medical community that play shouldn’t be considered a dismissible activity. In fact, according to the National Institute for Play, play is where we gain many tools that make us successful.

“A lifelong lack of play deprived [Charles Whitman] of opportunities to view life with optimism, test alternatives, or learn the social skills that, as part of spontaneous play, prepare individuals to cope with life stress,” the National Institute for Play’s website says.

Dr. Brown went on to study many other cases of violence, and found that play can act as a deterrent to violence. He claims that antisocial behavior and depression are also connected to absence of play in childhood.

But many people grew up in abusive households and were deprived of play, and this doesn’t mean they’ll go crazy at some point. In Whitman’s case, he was abusing amphetamines and medication, and also had a small tumor in his brain that scientists say could have contributed to his actions. The more reasonable connection between lack of play and one’s life is that it leads to a lack of skills that make adult life easier.

So far, research has shown play to be vital for social fluency, cognitive development and more. Consider something as simple as children playing with Legos, dolls or sticks. These children are creating symbols and metaphors and becoming fluent in the idea that something can mean more than it is. A stick is a wand, a closet is a palace and sawdust is hot lava. The ability to make associations like this aids creativity and is essential in everyday adult tasks.

When play happens in a group, people learn empathy, altruism and other vital social behaviors. Participants are afforded the opportunity to both give and take in play scenarios, and how to do so the right way. Play creates an environment where social skills blossom.

“Play is one of life’s fundamental principals, as basic and necessary as sleep, vitamins and dreams,” Brown writes.

Play is also connected to something called divergent thinking, which is the ability to consider a variety of options from a single point and think fluidly. It could be that play is at the heart of our problem-solving abilities.

Play also puts individuals in a community setting where the skills of mutual trust and cooperation are formed to achieve goals together. Perseverance is another skill developed during play, which is obvious when observing the child who spends all day building an intricate fort.

In Brown’s work he says that people who are severely play-deprived share some common traits: diminished impulse control, predilection for addiction, shallow interpersonal relationships, inflexibility and more.

Brown has conducted years of research on rats, and has found that depriving rats of play leads to brain development that isn’t normal.

Neotony, the retention of immature qualities into adulthood, is something humans have in abundance. Whether it’s dad joining in the slip-n-slide or grandma playing charades, we’re good at not acting our age. This flexibility gives us “a leg up on adaptability” according to Brown.

The bottom line is that play is valuable, and not a waste of time. Our industrious culture needs a shift in thinking in this regard.

“The opposite of play is not work. It’s boredom or depression,” Brown says.

A handful of companies have incorporated play into their businesses, rather than separating the two, as play aids creativity. For these companies, play doesn’t mean goofing off, but is more about how you approach the tasks at hand.
“Play is a state of mind,” says Joe Wilcox, IDEO Toy Lab inventor, former circus performer and kinetic sculptor. “I’ve heard it described as a visceral form of learning. It really doesn’t matter what the activity is, it’s the way you approach the activity that makes it play.”

In fact, Brown says play can require a ton of effort. Play happens when you care about the task at hand, and really approach it with joy. Perhaps it is for this reason that Plato said “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”

Embracing the spirit of play at the workplace keeps you functional under stress and refreshes your attitude and desires.

The Death of Spontaneous Play

Those familiar with Calvin and Hobbes will remember Calvinball, invented by the pair, which had no rules except those created spontaneously in the moment.

“The only permanent rule in Calvinball is that you can’t play it the same way twice!” Calvin declares to the reader.

Calvinball captures the nature of true play: it’s freely chosen, doesn’t have external goals, and it’s pleasurable. 

Research suggests that spontaneous, natural play provides important benefits in cognitive development, such as measurement, equivalency, balance, spatial reasoning, conservation, reversibility, logical classification and creativity, according to Fergus P. Hughes of the University of Wisconsin.

But adults seem to be robbing children of these benefits more and more, according to Jaak Panksepp, a play expert. Too often, kids are not free to choose how they play, their play has goals set by parents, and it sometimes isn’t pleasurable, all of which make their play less natural (think competitive organized sports).

“Play is now increasingly rule bound and organized by adults and seems increasingly lost in our evermore regulated and litigious society where too many kids have little freedom to negotiate the social terrain on their own terms,” Panksepp said in an interview with the Journal of Play.

Running around in the woods and playing in empty lots is replaced by a schedule of games, meets and practices. Failure to provide enough natural play to our children may be the force behind the dramatic increase of ADHD diagnoses in America, according to Panksepp. He worries about the amount of medication we give to our young people. He calls Ritalin a “play-reducing drug,” and worries that on top of taking away the benefits of play, these drugs may lead to these children to have elevated desires for drugs in the future. It may be that a diet of physical play could help children get off the track leading to medication, he suggests.

Furthermore, as a culture we’ve changed the definition of what constitutes healthy, normal play. For example, what was once considered normal rough-and-tumble play years ago may now be considered a sign of pathology. In other words, an energetic child who is rough with peers may be seen as needing treatment today, when before it was considered ordinary.

The benefits of spontaneous, natural play are well documented in children. Parents must consider this when faced with the decisions to medicate their children and put them in certain activities.

Sources: ttfuture.org, journalofplay.org

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