“There has been a general misperception that play is trivial, something you do when all of your responsibilities are taken care of. Those attitudes prevent the benefits of play, which really begin with the onset of life and end with the end of life,” says Dr. Stuart Brown, a psychiatrist and founder of the National Play Institute in California.
Brown’s research stems in part from mapping out the “play histories” of everyone from business executives to murderers, scientists to socialites. He also is author of Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul.
Human beings are hardwired to play, Brown says. “From a neuroscience point of view, play urges appear to come from the deepest centers of one’s brain, which from an evolutionary standpoint have been around for many, many millions of years,” he says.
We all know that children, even babies, love to play. Some researchers maintain that the kicking, punching or writhing that takes place in utero can be thought of as an expression of our play hardwiring. Brown compares play to oxygen. That is, it’s all around us but largely goes unnoticed until it is missing. “We can live to old age without it but there are consequences when you don’t engage in sufficient play. Hope, optimism, exploration, novelty, creativity and innovation – those things are stunted when play is not experienced,” Brown says. “And if you look at play-deprived adults, the flexibility to handle stress and to deal with the inevitability of life is less robust than if you have been a good player.”
Play also teaches empathy, says Jane Turner, executive director of Imagine It! The Children’s Museum of Atlanta. “In terms of pretend play, if I am taking on the role of the king or the queen and you are the peasant, you are going to see what it is like to be the peasant. Or if I am the student and you are the teacher, you are going to see what it is like to be the teacher.” The act of pretending also gives children some control in a world where they generally have none. “In some ways, children are powerless. At least in the context of a pretend role, they can take charge,” Turner says.
Isn’t soccer or piano still play? That depends, Brown says. “It well may be very, very positive and an excellent way for kids to use their time. But if kids are being pressured to perform to certain standards, then probably not. Then it is something that is performance-oriented for the parent or it is anxiety-laden for the child.”
The most effective form of play is unstructured, which means that it is childdirected, says Trudy Post Sprunk, president of the Georgia Association for Play Therapy, a group that uses play to help children express their feelings and work out their problems. “For example, you could ask your child to lead you on a nature walk. You are then willing to follow and listen to the child’s descriptions of what they are experiencing,” she says.
While children are naturals at playing – just put some blocks on the floor and watch what happens – many factors today work against child’s play. One is concern over safety. Many parents do not feel comfortable turning kids loose outdoors to conquer the pretend bad guy when real bad guy may be lurking around the corner.
Video games and other electronic games have become the play of choice for many kids. “They are here to stay,” Brown says. “There are some really amazing games where the possibilities are quite rich and the kids who are engrossed in them are playing. What I am concerned about is when that activity, which is largely screen activity, becomes the dominant mode of play. Then kids aren’t outside in the three-dimensional world, using their bodies and doing the kind of rough-and-tumble interpersonal skill sets that are the building blocks of becoming a competent adult.”
Many overscheduled kids also are buried in homework and extracurricular activities while their overscheduled parents rush to keep up. Sprunk had an 8-year-old client she describes as a hurried, anxious perfectionist. To help himself, he would escape into a small wooded area in his back yard where he pulled together pieces of dead branches. “He explained that it was his tree house and he would not show it or share it with anyone,” Sprunk says. “He had found quiet and peace away from his parents’ hurried lifestyle where he didn’t have to deal with their high expectations.” By keeping his creation secret, no one could make suggestions on how to change or improve it, she says. “It was truly his own creation where only he arranged, explored and problem-solved. It is often in this imaginative world that children process their life experiences,” she says.
During therapy, Sprunk often asks children if they want to be an adult someday. She says many children respond, “No. Being a grownup is no fun.”
But the benefits of play extend beyond childhood. “Most parents have given up or lost a lot of their playfulness,” Brown says. “But a state of play should be lifelong in my view.” And parents should remember that kids learn from them. “If a parent says to a child, ‘Go out and play,’ and the parent never plays, then the kid will find it difficult to be guilt-free in playing,” Brown says.
Sprunk recommends that busy families actually schedule a time to play. “When special playtime gets on a family’s master schedule, it’s more likely to consistently happen. It is also of immense value to the child to learn and know that their playtime with you is important enough to warrant a specific time.”