Program Particulars: Play, Spirit and Character

Program Particulars

Times indicated refer to web version of audio

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(02:04–02:25) Music Element

"The Multiples of One" from Awakening, performed by Joseph Curiale

(02:23) What is the National Institute for Play?

The National Institute for Play is a non-profit focused on bringing "the unrealized knowledge, practices and benefits of play into public life." Founded by Stuart Brown, it supports scientific research on play and informs society about the impact of play in both humans and animals. Primatologist Jane Goodall is a board member of the NIFP.

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(02:25–04:11) Music Element

"Coyote" from Hush, performed by Yo-yo Ma & Bobby McFerrin

(02:30) Brown's Study of Play Deprivation

Stuart Brown first discovered the impact of play in humans through clinical research on the absence of play in homicidal young men. His first research subject was Charles Whitman. On August 1, 1966, Whitman, a 25 year old ex-Marine, killed his mother and his wife, then killed 14 people and wounded 31 others as part of a shooting rampage from the top of a tower observation deck at the University of Texas in Austin. At the time, that rampage was one of the worst mass murders in U.S. history.

Stuart Brown, then a psychiatrist at Baylor College of Medicine, compiled behavioral data for a team of people gathered by Texas governor John Connolly to study potential causes based on Whitman's life. He learned that Whitman had been raised in an abusive household where play was consistently suppressed by an overbearing father, and the committee concluded that lack of play was a key element in Whitman's homicidal action. Stuart Brown conducted subsequent research on other violent individuals. He also spent years interviewing thousands of people about their "play profiles" in his ongoing clinical research, observing an active play life as a quality of healthy individuals.

(03:50) Working Definition of "Play"

When Krista asks Stuart Brown to give a working definition of play, he says there are "about 50 of them" in the Oxford English dictionary. He defines play as anything spontaneously done for its own sake, and extends that to things that "appear purposeless, produces pleasure and joy, leads one to the next stage of mastery." He continues, "In terms of biology, it appears to be the product of what I call divinely superfluous neurons. There is choice in the players life. And that choice, if given opportunities through the environment, emerges innately and spontaneously if the individual, or animal for that matter, that's capable of playing is safe and well fed."

(06:12) Images of Animals at Play

Initially in his work, Stuart Brown found little serious science on human play. But he discovered a rich world of study in the work of Jane Goodall and other scientists engaged with studying play in intelligent social animals. In December 1994, National Geographic featured Brown's article "Animals at Play" as its cover story. The article highlighted his experience studying and working with leading scientists and observers of animal play, accompanied by photographs of wild animals playing. Included were Norbert Rosing's striking photographs of a polar bear and husky sled dog at play in Canada's Hudson Bay. See these photos and hear Stuart Brown describe their play in our audio slideshow.

(08:10) The Parent-Infant Bonding Process … a Beginning to Human Play?

Brown refers to a beginning point of play as the bonding between a mother and infant. In humans, he describes perhaps a first experience of play — the spontaneous eruption of joy that happens with parent-infant eye contact and social smiling. The parent-infant bond has been studied for many years to help better understand the development of children and its impact on raising a healthy child. Recent developments in this research include a July 2008 study in the journal Pediatrics that reports when a mother sees her baby's smile, a region of the brain known as the reward center is activated. Based on new brain-imaging studies, researches characterize this response as a "natural high" caused by increased blood flow to the reward center.

(08:50) Bear Play with Bob Fagan

In 1992, Stuart Brown accompanied scientist Bob Fagen on a trip to Alaska to observe bear behavior. Below is an excerpt from Brown's article "Through the Lens of Play" where he describes the bear play he witnessed.

Alaskan Bear Play and the Fagens It is 1992, and I am in a tree stand thirty feet up in an old-growth cypress on the east side of Alaska's Admiralty Island with ethnologist and animal play expert Bob Fagen. He nudges me and I look across the tidal flats toward the outlet of Pack Creek as it flows into the inside passage of Seymour Canal. We are about an hour's light-plane flight southwest of Juneau in a pristine wilderness. The feeding bears we have been watching for the last two weeks are round-bellied and high-spirited. The salmon are at the peak of their run, and the creek outlet is gold and silver tinged with the pulsating bodies of chum and pinks thrashing upstream. Two juvenile brown (grizzly) bears in the distance are approaching each other across the meadow that abuts the tidal flats. Ears slightly back, eyes widened, mouths open, they begin a playful wrestling match that extends for many minutes across our entire field of vision. In and out of the rapids, watched by sentinel like bald eagles, haw-hawed at by ravens, ignored by their fishing fellow tribe members, splashing through clear sparkling pools, they circle, pirouette, gambol, stand, lean shoulder-to-shoulder, and playfully embrace in their upright dance. Periodically they pause, look at the water and then, as if under the influence of a master conductor, begin mouth-to-mouth, head-to-head, body-to-body, paw-to-paw, their agile, fast, compelling display of bear play. It is as if they have just inhaled some cosmic mist filled with joy and are intoxicated by it. For the past nine years, Bob and his wife Johanna have organized a major, ongoing ethological study of brown bears in the wild with a primary focus on play. The National Geographic Society had sent me on assignment to observe them and their work. I felt fortunate to be learning about bear play and the phenomenon of animal play from them, and they had acquainted me with about twenty-eight of the individual bears that frequent Pack Creek. Bob's meticulous observations have earned him worldwide stature among the scientific and ethological communities. His book, Animal Play Behavior, (Fagen 1981), a monumental treatise, is the gold standard for describing animal play. It reviews the story of animal play in detail from aardvark to the song sparrow Zonothricia melodia. Aware of his encyclopedic knowledge of all animal play, but filled with the spirit of unfettered joy of the bears' play we have just observed, I ask, "Bob, why do these bears play?" After some hesitation, without looking up, he says, "Because it's fun."

(21:50) Marc Bekoff's Writing on Animal Ethics

Marc Bekoff is an ecologist and evolutionary biologist who's studied animals in their natural habitats and has written many books, including Animal Play: Evolutionary, Comparative and Ecological Perspectives.

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(23:08–25:45) Music Element

"Roly Poly" from The Little Willies, performed by The Little Willies

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(25:46–27:08) Music Element

"Daydream" from The Little Willies, performed by The Little Willies

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(27:22–28:13) Music Element

"Wake Up" from Funeral, performed by Arcade Fire

(27:25) The Dangerous Book for Boys

Conn Iggulden, author of The Dangerous Book for Boys, reflects on writing the book in a Washington Post essay titled "In Praise of Skinned Knees and Grubby Faces":

Finally, we chose our title — The Dangerous Book for Boys. It's about remembering a time when danger wasn't a dirty word. It's safer to put a boy in front of a PlayStation for a while, but not in the long run. The irony of making boys' lives too safe is that later they take worse risks on their own. You only have to push a baby boy hard on a swing and see his face light up. It's not learned behavior — he's hardwired to enjoy a little risk. Ask any man for a good memory from childhood and he'll tell you about testing his courage or getting injured. No one wants to see a child get hurt, but we really did think the bumps and scratches were badges of honor, once.

(29:26) Quote from Jane Goodall

Krista quotes from Jane Goodall's article "Chimpanzees and Others at Play," of which an extended excerpt follows:

There is no doubt that locomotor play, along with object play, helps young animals to learn about their environment, to develop muscles and coordination, and to prepare for adult life. Play provides opportunity for youngsters to become familiar with an arboreal environment so that, as adults, they will be less likely to fall during sudden flight through the treetops. Playful exploration provides information about the nature of the environment that will be useful in getting food, escaping enemies, and so forth, as they grow older. And social play provides information about the strengths and weaknesses of an individual in relation to others in the group. In other words, play teaches young animals what they can and cannot do at a time when they are relatively free from the survival pressures of adult life—when they are dependent on their mothers to take care of their needs. Thus they have time to explore, to test, and to learn about the world around them.

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(32:43–34:37) Music Element

"Too Happy" from Designs In Music, performed by Ben Vaughn

(32:56) Voices from the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation

The Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation created a traveling exhibit — Invention at Play — that featured the voices of inventors and industry leaders telling their stories about the influential role of play in their lives.

You look at the successful lives of people who have really made a difference in human society, and what you find is that they didn't do things by the rules. They, in fact, insisted on making their own rules. They were playful people. I happen to be at the ripe old age of 64 just learning how to ride motorcycles for the first time. Terrifying but awfully fun.

—Frank Wilson, a physician at Stanford University Medical Center

No one becomes a great inventor or a great scientist or a great writer or anything else unless they love what they do. Because you have to really be able to invest your entire soul into something. And if you can't play at it, if you can't just do something because you enjoy it, then you can't do it completely enough or long enough to succeed at it.

—Robert Root-Bernstein, author of Sparks of Genius

(43:15) Neurogenesis

Adult Neurogenesis refers to the biological process of generating new neurons (brain cells) in the matured human brain. For the majority of the last century, scientists believed that an adult's neurons were unable to regenerate — that we are essentially stuck with the brains we enter adulthood with.

However, research in the last 20 years has demonstrated that assumption to be less than certain. In the Seed magazine article "The Reinvention of the Self," researcher Elizabeth Gould discusses the theory that many of the previous assumptions about adult brain development may have been a result of the experimental setting:

Gould has also become concerned about the details of experimental design. She now stresses the importance, for both rodents and primates, of living in a naturalistic setting. An artificial cage creates artificial data.


The mind is like a muscle: it swells with exercise. Gould's and Kozorovitskiy's work reminds us not only how easy it is to hurt a brain, but how little it takes for that brain to heal. Give a primate just a few extra playthings, and its neurons are capable of escaping the downward cycle of stress.

Although much is still unknown about the process of regenerating neurons in the adult brain, scientists are now actively studying how factors including stress, exercise, and environment can effect the brain's ability to heal itself. There is hope that this information can help in treating severe neurological conditions like Parkinson's, Huntington's, Alzheimer's, and even chronic depression.

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(49:30–52:43) Music Element

"Micaela" from Heavy Salsa, performed by Sonoro Carruseles

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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.