Krista's Journal: Purposelessness and Play - Endemic to Our Human Nature

July 2, 2009

It feels contrary to the spirit of this program to write a "reflection" on it. I had to confess to Stuart Brown that for long stretches of my life his short definition of play — "pleasurable, apparently purposeless activity" — would have made me nervous. I'm a good American — purposeful in all things. Age and parenting are lightening me up.

Stuart Brown, for his own part, says he spent too many years as a workaholic doctor; and he came to his fascination with play after observing play-deprivation in the lives of homicidal young men he had been given to study. These days, he gives himself three or four hours a day of "rogue tennis," reading, frolicking with his grandchildren. For work, he promotes better science on how play enriches us and nourishes human spirit and character. He believes this has implications for how we should structure our schools, workplaces, and family lives.

I am surprised, and eventually convinced, by the amazing list of virtues Stuart Brown associates with play across the span of our lives, drawing on a rich universe of play study in humans and intelligent social animals. (By the way, stop right here for a smile by looking at amazing pictures of animals quite obviously delighting in play.) It is established, Stuart Brown insists, that an actively playful life establishes the earliest sense of self; sustains trust; provides increased enthusiasm for effectiveness in learning; prevents violence; invigorates the body; lessens the consequences of stress; contributes directly to the capacity to approach and solve complex life problems; and rewards and directs the living of life in accord with innate talents.

But that all sounds so serious. Stuart Brown punctuates his scientific insights with an endearing, raucous laugh. And the effect of this conversation, and all the evocative sound and music our producer Mitch Hanley layers in, is to coax us to enjoy enjoying. Stuart Brown even assures me that the rough and tumble play that my son engages in is teaching him empathy and boundaries and trust. He encourages me not to be a "helicopter mother," touching down and interrupting when no one is being hurt. Here is the clincher: none of the murderers he studied had ever engaged in normal rough and tumble play. I let him rest his case.

I love this analogy Stuart Brown makes — after all his study of the science of play in intelligent social animals as well as human beings. At one end of the play spectrum in animals, there are labrador retrievers; at the other, there are wolves. Human beings act like labs in childhood and wolves in adulthood. But all we are learning about the human brain and body suggest that we are in fact hard-wired to learn and grow, by way of play and pleasure, across our life span.

How to rediscover play if you've let it slide, I ask? Move your body, Stuart Brown says. 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. And remember, he says, to the accomplished wolves and workaholic perfectionists among us, that while the idea of learning to play might be daunting, it's not rocket science. We know how to play, in good and deep and life-giving places inside us, just by virtue of being human.

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is founder and president of the National Institute for Play near Monterey, California. He is co-author of Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul.