What is play? It has nothing to do with structure imposed by adults. Psychiatrist Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play, describes play as most basically “purposeless, repetitive, pleasurable, spontaneous actions.” Sometimes this is driven by curiosity and the urge to discover. Sometimes it is imaginative play. Sometimes it’s rough and tumble play, the kind that necessarily puts the player at risk and involves anti-gravity moves such as jumping. This description is true whether we’re talking about puppies, otters, crows, or people.
The “higher” a species ranks in intelligence, the more they play.
A research team led by ethologists Robert and Johanna Fagan spent 15 years, many of them sitting in trees, studying how bears play in the wild. Of the bears they observed, the individuals that played more often as cubs and through adulthood lived longer and healthier lives. They also left behind more offspring.
A study of ground squirrels found those that played were more coordinated (a big deal for squirrels) and grew up to be more successful parents.
And we know a lot about the importance of play for rats. They even laugh (a rat version of laughter) when tickled. Compelling research shows the more young rats actively played, the more rapidly their brains grew and their learning abilities increased. (The same correlations seem to be true for children’s play as well.)
Young creatures, including humans, play has to do with movement and excitement. It’s a highly sensory way to experience socially important peaks and lows, winning and losing, threat and relief from threat. It helps participants learn to understand the intentions of others. It also lets them learn to handle stressors and practice different reactions, gradually teaching them through experience to respond appropriately when they face much more demanding emotional and physical challenges later in life.
This is helpful to remember when kids are wrestling, climbing, chasing, running, giggling, tumbling, and making a mess. It’s even more helpful to remember when they’re arguing, grabbing, yelling, complaining, shrieking, and otherwise demonstrating that melodrama is inseparable from play. All of that physical and emotional energy is important practice for becoming reasonable, responsible adults.
Play can also tell us a great deal about what’s forefront in children’s lives.
When my oldest child started kindergarten his play reflected the more authoritarian structure he was adjusting to and interactions with the different people he encountered each morning. He balanced that by seeking out more time in the garage hammering nails into scrap wood, more time riding his bike, and more time playing Legos than before he’d started school —- all reassuringly favorite activities to discharge the day’s emotions. And he and his best friend Sara started playing “school bus.” They sat in chairs or on the ground behind each other while acting out what they observed on their daily bus rides. They took turns quite politely repeating some pretty awful slurs they heard from kids on the bus, and then repeating back the driver’s rather belligerent responses. Their play not only helped them work through their experiences, it helped us alert the school to what was happening.
Play can also inform us about temperament, innate abilities, and about where different individuals find joy. Here are two examples, taken from Free Range Learning, of children expressing who they are through play.
A little girl creates chaos with her toys. She won’t put blocks away with other blocks nor put socks in her dresser drawer. As a preschooler she creates groupings that go together with logic only she understands. One such collection is made up of red blocks, a striped sock, spoons, and marbles. She sings to herself while she rearranges these items over and over. The girl is punished when she refuses to put her puzzles away in the correct box or her tea set dishes back together. She continues making and playing with these strangely ordered sets but hides them to avoid getting in trouble. This phase passes when she is about nine years old. Now an adult, she is conducting post-doctoral studies relating to string theory. She explains her work as a physicist has to do with finding common equations among disparate natural forces.
A young boy’s high energy frustrates his parents. As a preschooler he climbs on furniture and curtain rods, even repeatedly tries to scale the kitchen cabinets. When he becomes a preteen he breaks his collarbone skateboarding. He is caught shoplifting at 13. His parents are frightened when he says he “only feels alive on the edge.” Around the age of 15 he becomes fascinated with rock-climbing. His fellow climbers, mostly in their 20’s, also love the adrenaline rush that comes from adventure sports but help him gain perspective about his responsibility to himself and other climbers. His ability to focus on the cliff face boosts his confidence on the ground. At 19 he is already certified as a mountain search and rescue volunteer. He is thinking of going to school to become an emergency medical technician.
Stuart Brown says that looking back at our own unique “play history” can tell us a great deal about ourselves. He asks us to let ourselves drift back to our earliest and most resonant play memories. He suggests asking older family members about what we played when we were very young. He goes on to say,
Explore backwards as far as you can go to the most clear, joyful, playful image that you have whether it’s with a toy, on a birthday, or on a vacation. And begin to build to build from the emotion of that into how that connects with your life now. ..
How to rediscover play if you’ve let it slide? Move your body. Dig up your memories of what brought you pleasure as a child. Take cues from “the experts” — the children in your life today. Do what makes you happy, and what transports you beyond a sense of the clock, your schedule, that deadline — beyond time.
As my dear friend and mentor Bernie DeKoven reminds us,
Playfulness is a practice that shapes our souls. It connects us. It is an act of belief in ourselves, a vehicle whose wheels are powered by our faith in life, bringing us to places of wonder, moments of joy. It is almost the last thing to leave us before we leave all together forever.