One of the best parts about having so many littler people in my life is that my opportunities for play dates have increased one billion fold. Suddenly there is time for trampoline and legos and bubbles and chalk on pavement and cubby house and imaginary picnics and hide and seek. And OMG it is fun.
Play – for all of us - is actually pretty serious business. This might sound paradoxical. Because it is. Play is something that comes so naturally to us large-brained mammals (and birds, according to some authorities) and is so much fun, but it is also so vital. Play is a banquet for the brain, a smorgasbord for the senses, providing nourishment for our body and our spirit. It’s a bit sad then that it took all of my friends to procreate before I realised that so much of it was missing from my life.
Some biologists and theorists define play as any activity that is neither ‘serious’ nor ‘work’. Active play, says Stuart Brown, a psychiatrist and founder of the National Institute for Play in California, is a timeless state of being essential to humans. It is also a state of mind, an attitude of curiosity and wonder. And neuroscience, Brown argues, is beginning to show how true that is. Play, he says, is what builds complex, skilled, responsive, socially adept and flexible brains, which in turn build complex, skilled, responsive, socially adept and flexible people and societies. Lizards, turtles, rats, birds, primates, most mammals, and even some fish play in their youth, but few animals continue to play into adulthood. As humans though, we can.
As children, play is how we begin to understand ourselves, and how the world works, without risk. From an evolutionary perspective, play primarily evolved to teach us skills as young people: to build cooperation and sharing, to assist us with survival.
In the 1960s, Brown identified play’s importance through the study of 26 young (male) murderers, beginning with Charles Whitman. In August 1966, Whitman, a 25-year-old architectural engineering student at the University of Texas at Austin, killed his wife and mother, then mounted the campus tower, shooting dead a total of 17 people and wounding more than 30 before being gunned down himself.
Brown and his colleagues expected to find a history of physical abuse in Whitman’s and the other murderers’ pasts, which they did: but they also discovered that “play deprivation and other major play abnormalities” were present in most cases. For example, Whitman’s playfulness was systematically beaten out of him (literally and figuratively) by his overbearing father. Neighbours testified that he was not allowed to play with other children. A Texas state committee, convened to investigate the university shootings, concluded that lack of play was a key factor in Whitman’s killing spree: if he had been allowed to play, it theorised, he would have been better able to cope with life’s vicissitudes without recourse to violence. (Others have hypothesised, however that Whitman’s glioblastoma, a type of brain tumour, helps to explain his actions.)
Brown went on to catalogue the detailed play histories of more than 6,000 people over the course of his career. He writes: “What all these studies repeatedly revealed…was that…normal play behaviour was virtually absent throughout the lives of highly violent, antisocial men, regardless of demography.” It seems that Jack Torrance’s threatening repetition of “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” in The Shining has more than pop resonance.
Brown’s work reveals that severely play-deprived children manifest multiple psychopathologies: conversely, the histories of successful, creative people show social play’s vital part in healthy development. It seems that emotional control, social competency, personal resiliency and curiosity accrue through developmentally appropriate play experiences. Other studies, such as the work of Swiss researchers Marco Hüttenmoser and Dorothee Degen-Zimmermann, have also found that play-deprived children manifest responses on a scale ranging from unhappiness to aggression.
Why is play deprivation so damaging? John Byers, professor of zoology at the University of Idaho, says that among “mammals with well-developed play, the behaviour represents a substantial energy expenditure and may involve physical risk. These two facts indicate that play most likely is involved in post-natal brain development (in mammals, a larger adult brain size requires a longer period of development), and the benefit of play must be substantial (to outweigh the energy and risk costs).”
Byers’ research over the past 40 years has also shown that in a number of mammals, “the ages at which play reaches a peak rate coincide with the ages during which there is performance-based selective elimination of synapses in the cerebellum, the part of the brain that permits sophisticated movement.” A theory postulated as play as a form of brain “hygiene?”
That same brain hygiene exists for us as adults.
As adults, play creates rich, new neural connections that fire together in new ways. In animal studies, life without play is bleak. Scientists have found that, deprived of play, young rats’ brains develop abnormally, just like rats with a damaged prefrontal cortex. And that, when presented with a cat odour, only rats who’d played eventually came out of hiding and began poking around, testing the environment.
Playful adults have the ability to transform everyday situations, even stressful ones, into something entertaining. Studies have found that highly playful young adults — those who rated themselves high on personality characteristics such as being spontaneous or energetic, or open to ‘clowning around’ — reported less stress in their lives and possessed better coping skills. It’s possible that those of us that have these attributes because they are better able to keep stress in perspective.
There’s a reason that adult play exists in modern society. One theory is that we play because it’s therapeutic — and there’s research to back that up. At work, play has been found to speed up learning, enhance productivity and increase job satisfaction; and at home, playing together, like going to a movie or a concert, can enhance bonding and communication.
In today’s world, work seems to give us our sense of identity and purpose. Being busy has become a way of showing high status. Leisure time - what the ancient Greek philosophers held as the aim of ‘the good life’ - is seen as silly, unproductive and useless, as are other unproductive states, like sleep.
But if the younger people in my world are teaching me anything, it’s that we need to be able to justify our play time again. Play is reminding me about my better self and just how happy I can be. When I get to play, there’s a wonderful lightness to my being. It’s blowing my mind.