The Importance of Play

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Do you have a new stockpile of new toys and games in your house this week?  Read what a noted expert on play has to say about this very important aspect of childhood and being human:

childrenatplay.jpegDr. Stuart Brown, a medical doctor, neuro-scientist, psychiatrist, Mayo Clinic Fellow, and founder-director of the National Institute of Play, began studying play as an aspect of psychological development in 1966 when then Texas governor John Connally , who had survived the motorcade assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, assembled a team of experts to study the motivation behind extreme violent behavior in young men after Charles Whitman murdered 14 people from a tower at the University of Texas. 


One of the major conclusions of the study was that there had been a systematic suppression of any free play, largely the result of Whitman's father's strict and overbearing personality.  "He prevented Charles from play in any era of his life, including infancy, he stopped all spontaneity."  Dr. Brown then researched all young murderers in the TX prisons and found the majority had "bizarre, absent, deficient play histories."  No murderer studied engaged in rough and tumble, free play as a child, "absolutely none." 

What does Dr Brown mean by "play?"  He defines it as "anything spontaneous done for its own sake that appears purposeless but produces pleasure and joy.  It is a product of choice and, if given opportunity and a safe environment, emerges innately and spontaneously."  Play helps an individual define his or her strengths and desires and leads to the next stage of physical and psychological mastery. 


"When critical play experiences are missed, an individual's ability to establish and regulate empathy and trust is constricted," explained Dr. Brown.  The beginning point of play happens in the infant-parent relationship:  The spontaneous eruption of joy and pleasure in the development of eye contact, smiling, and cooing.  It's mutual joy. Babies get joy from grabbing and putting things into their mouths and then playing with toys, parallel play with other children, etc.  "It continues to get more and more complex, if the individual is allowed to participate in it.  Each stage of the lifecycle has more intricate and complicated play."


The relationship between play and the discovery of our natural talents is essential.  "If you observe your child's play and do not direct it, you will begin to see a pattern of what they like to play - their choices and desires" said Dr Brown.  His research has proven that while watching your child play, you will get a glimpse into their innate talents.  "If talents are given fairly free reign - freedom to build upon themselves - a sense of empowerment and freedom starts; a union between self and talent.  It is nature's way of saying 'this is who you are'."  Dr Brown suggests that even adults can get a better understanding of their talents and desires if they go back and think of what gave them joy in play as a child.  He believes that no one can become great at something unless he or she loves what they do.  Otherwise, one can't do it completely enough or long enough to succeed at it.  One successful neurologist uses play as a means by which to become "unstuck" in research or in life.  She said "playing can help open me up and redirect me."


The rough and tumble play of children, particularly boys, is often a concern to parents but critical to successful psychological development, explains Dr. Brown.  "There is a certain violence and combativeness to little boy play which is universal - if allowed to emerge.  In preschool, you see chaotic play - diving, hitting, and screaming.  It can look like fighting but if you look at the children, they're smiling at each other.  It is successful as long as it is not a contest of who is going to win.  Parents and teachers will often put a lid on it because it seems scary.  The reality is, this play will most always have elements of violence, fantasy vs reality, pretense, and it all helps children make sense of the world.  The mixing of what is driven from within a child's own personality and temperament with that of others helps to develop empathy and trust.  If someone is too rough and hits you too hard, you learn what it feels like and you won't hit someone else too hard.  It's the start of an empathetic response."


But what about a bully? "If a child doesn't have a bully in their midst (including an abusive parent), they will gang-up on a bully and take care of him and the bully will learn.  And if the bully doesn't spend enough time with the experience of rough and tumble play to redirect his or her responses, or if he or she experiences violence at home, the bully must be removed from the play situation - the playground."  Dr Brown agrees that there must be reasonable protection by adults but not hovering -- which prevents spontaneity and the development of problem solving techniques.  "In general, kids solve their own problems.  They learn whether they're strong, fast, cagey, verbal or not, imaginative or something else."


Over-protective play reduces the ability to be playful and take risk.  It is possible that we are keeping the body safe but endangering the soul. 

Regarding competitive play, Dr Brown believes that the more adults become involved in play, the more competitive it becomes.  He explains that while there is competition in nature, the natural emergence of competitiveness is a testing of one's skill against the skill of another without the necessity of domination.  "Contests require a winner and often have an exclusionary quality and this is not what you see in animal play.  The higher primates will naturally handicap the weaker competitor so that play can continue.  It is possible for a wise coach or seasoned parent to deal with competition where mutual participation, love of the game, and personal best all matter most, particularly among younger children." 


Are video games okay?  "Some, yes.  Some video game play builds imagination and the newly designed games that incorporate movement are likely to be more savory for the body and mind." Is bodily movement generally important to the benefits of play?  "Absolutely.  There are connections between the cerebellum and front lobe cortex that light up when you're involved in movement, movement accelerates learning.  Kids are taught that academics are more important than recess but as much is being learned on the playground."


A critical aspect of spontaneous play is timelessness.  When asked to explain his concept of 'timelessness,' Dr. Brown gives as an example Michael Jordan playing in the finals, "he's probably unaware of the buzzer - he's outside of time."  What you get lost in, perhaps music, watching your grandchildren play, reading - it all can be considered play.  And while our culture often has trouble accepting behavior that appears purposeless, a life without it can bring people stress.  We live in a culture that does not really value play in adults.  "The human being is designed to play in adulthood.  We now know that humans are capable of new neuro-development throughout a lifetime whereas most other creatures are not."  He adds, "If one doesn't play in adulthood, there are consequences - rigidity, depression, lack of adaptability - qualities that do not enable us to cope in a world of many demands." 


Knowing this, we must ask ourselves, do we parent that way?  Teach that way?  Do our laws and institutions reflect our continual capability for impulsive, adolescent behavior?   


"If you're living a life without play it's okay, you'll survive.  But, it's kind of an endurance contest.  Some of the essence of life is missing.  You can get economic reward without play but not inner peace."


Dr. Brown gives hope that getting older can enable more devotion to play.  Age can provide the wisdom to change our priorities.  Irresponsibility isn't okay but balance is essential.   Some of us want to play more but see it as a job.  Dr Brown believes our ability to play as adults depend on how much play we did as kids.  "Some people need to go way back to basic rhythm and movement to produce a sense of pleasure.  Find whatever works for you and then do it!  Reach into images that you relate to, that give you pleasure, and then begin to explore.  Let it be a slow and enjoyable process for you."


"Play is embedded in us.  We all have a leg-up on play just by being human."

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