As mammals, we appear to be hard-wired for play. In fact, the biology of play reveals that humans require plenty of unstructured play to stay healthy.
In “Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul,” psychiatrist Stuart Brown explores the biology of play in studies of animals, serial killers, and even Nobel Prize winners. His research reveals that in addition to being pleasurable and a distraction from stress, play is “a profound biological process” important for survival.
For example, in rats, play reduces impulsivity (similar to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in humans). When social mammals such as rats and monkeys are deprived of rough-and-tumble play, they enter adulthood emotionally fragile. Play helps them distinguish friend from foe, handle stress better, and form better skills to mate properly.
Ten reasons to prioritize play
• Happier kids. We may trivialize play or fail to see its usefulness, but it’s much more than having fun. In addition to improving emotional health, it serves a biological purpose. Dr. Brown says making play a part of daily life contributes to feeling fulfilled as happy, successful human beings. What constitutes play? Think beyond games and sport. Play involves books, music, art, jokes, movies, drama, and daydreaming.
• Enhanced social competence. Play teaches people to master and adapt to changing circumstances. Even “dealing with or avoiding being excluded” from games like tag or dodge ball are helpful social skills to learn.
• Symptoms of mild attention deficit hyperactivity disorder may be alleviated. Dr. Lara Honos-Webb, author of “The Gift of ADHD” says of the disorder, “it is important to remember that nature is medicine and activity is medicine.” She suggests parents of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder make time for them to run around outside before school and be sure that recess is never taken away as a punishment for poor behavior.
• It burns fat. Trends for childhood obesity are staggering. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2010, more than one third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese. The percentage of children aged 6–11 years in the United States who were obese increased from seven percent in 1980 to nearly 18 percent in 2010. Obesity increases the risk for cardiovascular disease, asthma, sleep apnea, and type 2 diabetes.
• Play increases resiliency. After analyzing thousands of “play histories,” Brown stresses that play deficiencies can lead to closed-mindedness, inflexibility, and unhappiness. Lifelong play is part of the antidote. Play may even prevent a smoldering depression and is not just a trivial escape. Freeplay provides a vehicle for learning to problem solve, and as Dr. Brown writes, “reshapes our rigid views of the world.”
• Developmental benefits. It is well established that play is helpful to development, but Dr. Brown’s research reveals it may be critical. For young homicidal males and drunk drivers studied, rough-and-tumble play was missing from their childhoods.
• Strong academic performance. Playtime may be especially relevant for boys. In “Recess,” psychologist Anthony Pelligrini discovered that successful peer interaction at recess was an excellent predictor of success on standardized tests. When boys established competence on the playground, they also fared better in the classroom and paid attention better. We appear to be hard-wired to play, yet recess and physical education classes are disappearing from the school day.
• Play opens the imagination. Kids today spend 50 percent less time outside than they did just 20 years ago. The lure of electronic devices and social networking is so tempting and culturally reinforced that the beauty of nature and fresh air get overlooked.
• It is what successful people do. Playfulness sparks creativity and innovation. Analysis of the play histories of successful adults reveals “Highly successful people have a rich play life.”
• Play invigorates the soul. Play is not just a mindless activity — it is active learning. As Brown puts it: “From an evolutionary perspective, the smarter the animal, the more they play … it gets us in touch with our core selves and the joy of life.”
Michele Ranard has a husband, two children, and a master’s in counseling. She is passionate about helping parents and children lead richer lives.
Brown, Stuart. “Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul.” Avery, 2009.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (www.cdc.gov)
Gray, Peter. “Free to Learn.” Basic, 2013.
Honos-Webb, Lara. “The Gift of ADHD.” New Harbinger, 2005.
Pellegrini, Anthony. “Recess: It’s Role in Education and Development.” Laurence Erlbaum, 2005.