Play is More than Just Fun

You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation. [Plato]

Stuart Brown says play is more than just fun. In Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul he says:

“[…] work that is devoid of play is either boring or a grind. We can get pretty far through sheer willpower, and some people have prodigious powers of perfectionism, self-denial, and suffering. Ultimately, though, people cannot succeed in rising to the highest levels of their field if they don’t enjoy what they are doing, if they don’t make time for play. Having a fierce dedication to grinding out the work is often not enough. Without some sense of fun or play, people usually can’t make themselves stick to any discipline long enough to master it.

People always say that you can reach the top by “keeping your nose to the grindstone,” but as sports performance specialist Chuck Hogan observes, this is not true. People reach the highest levels of a discipline because they are driven by love, by fun, by play. “The great performers perform as they do, and do so with such grace, because they love what they are doing,” Hogan observes. “It’s not work. It’s play.””

Stuart Brown's research on play exposes the areas of our culture most in need of “play hygiene”:

Most adults have “forgotten” what it was like to engage in free play when they were kids. And truthfully, they may have not had much experience with free play when they were young. Beginning in preschool, the natural mayhem that 3-5 year olds engage in (normal rough and tumble play) is usually suppressed by a well meaning preschool teacher and parents who prefer quiet and order to the seeming chaos that is typical of free childhood play.

We need adequate play hygiene in preschools so that both parents and preschool teachers recognize the difference between dangerous out of control boundary-less anarchy, and normal play– diving, screaming, chasing, even some punching. When there are smiles and continuing friendships, rambunctious play is healthy. The awareness on the part of parents and teachers of the value of free child-organized–meaning lightly supervised–play for elementary school children at recess is another area where greater insight about play hygiene is needed.

Play should also be used with teachers in their classroom, and by parents when they help their child with homework. Learning should not be drudgery. Play promotes true intellectual curiously. It has been shown to increase lifetime performance, just as adequate recess time leads to increased long term academic accomplishments.

Also, parents need to control their anxieties about maximizing every minute of their child or young adult’s time to increase their competitiveness and performance so that their college resumes will be strong. With every moment scripted by adult ambitions for them, kids cannot become naturally attuned to their innate talents.

Humor, games, roughhousing, flirtation, and fantasy are more than just fun. Play allows us to roll with the punches and maintain a positive attitude as we respond to life's events:

While most social mammals have a life cycle that involves dominance and submissiveness (as in Chimpanzee troops or wolf packs) with play diminishing significantly as adulthood arrives, we retain the biology associated with youthfulness despite still dying of old age! By this I mean that our overall long period of childhood dependency, which is dominated by the need for play, does not end with our reaching adulthood.

Our adult biology remains unique among all creatures, and our capacity for flexibility, novelty and exploration persists. If we suppress this natural design, the consequences are dire. The play-less adult becomes stereotyped, inflexible, humorless, lives without irony, loses the capacity for optimism, and generally is quicker to react to stress with violence or depression than the adult whose play life persists.

In a world of major continuous change (and we are certainly facing big changes economically now) playful humans who can roll with the punches and innovate through their play-inspired imaginations will better survive. Our playful natures have arrived at this place through the trial and error of millions of years of evolution, and we need to honor our design to play.

We all have capacity to play. It is an indispensable part of being human. We learn empathy, trust, irony, and problem solving through play. When we view life as play and possibility we expand our options. This nonproductive activity can make one enormously more productive and invigorated in other aspects of life.