Serious Fun: A Q&A With the Author of Play

INSERT DESCRIPTIONStuart Brown

Whether he’s playing tennis with “a convivial group of codgers” or hanging out with his grandkids, Stuart Brown, the author of Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, plays as often as he can.

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With a background in neuroscience and behavioral medicine, Brown has studied play globally, both in civilization and in the wild. He founded the National Institute for Play and has produced a three-part PBS series on play. He also regularly teaches employees at Fortune 500 companies why they should do it more.

A former clinical director at Mercy Hospital and Medical Center in San Diego, Brown says he first discovered the importance of play when he observed the way it helped sick kids recover from illness, and later, when he researched murderers and found that lack of play may contribute to homicidal behavior.

Brown has agreed to answer our questions about his book, but first he has a question for Freakonomics readers:

What’s your favorite way to play?

Post your answers and comments below. For those of you reading this from your work computer, Brown recommends emailing a joke or a funny YouTube clip to a friend to increase your productivity.

Question

In the midst of a recession, playing is probably one of the last things on people’s minds. Say you’re one of the many unlucky unemployed. Can playing help you?

Answer

Most certainly it can. It is very difficult to feel much like playing while one is stressed over finances and feeling helpless in the face of economic collapse. However, finding within oneself sources of joyfulness into which one can lose the tyranny of the economic envelope — for example, remembering what some really free play times were like as a kid or in earlier, less stressful times and insisting on emotionally re-enacting the feelings associated with such playful freedom — can be very transformative. Play is, after all, designed to prepare one for the unexpected and allow exploration of the possible. That is one of the reasons it has been retained by nature, and it’s infused into all of us.

Question

Wouldn’t playing during tough or emotional times be seen as callous or irresponsible?

Answer

Since the prevailing cultural stereotype is that play is frivolous (wrong), then someone whose mortgage is due and is unemployed playing ball in the local park may appear as such.

However, as long as it’s not a driven state of mind fostered by purely escapist urgency, but rather by the inner perception that play is good stress damage control, it may be the most responsible action you can take.

Question

Does today’s society have a play deficit compared to, say 50 years ago, and what changed?

Answer

Childhood play has changed dramatically. Open and free play with less need or demand for parental oversight and control was the norm 50 years ago. The changes include less time being spent outdoors, less physical and more screen-time play, more adult organized playtimes, less recess, and more homework.

The workforce changes involving more women in the workplace, parents both working longer hours with less vacation, increased preschool enrollment, kindergarten seen as a place for academic preparation, and the perception (not the reality) that overall the world has become a more dangerous place, packed with pedophiles, etc. are contributors. I could go on.

Question

In your research, you found that a lack of play in the childhoods of murderers may have contributed to their homicidal activity later in life. How so?

Answer

The long and serious play deprivation of the studied murderers was linked to their violence by their narrowness of behavioral repertoires when faced with major stress, humiliation, and depression. And most of them had experienced violence and abuse as well, so they were spring-loaded for violence. However, the comparison-control groups, some of whom had been abused, nonetheless seemed immunized against violence (perhaps) through their adequate developmentally appropriate play experiences, particularly free rough-and-tumble play.

Question

Can play actually raise your I.Q.?

Answer

I don’t know of any full-on objective studies that link play to the raising of I.Q., but adequate recess and better long-term academic performance have been correlated. And a playfully contagious teacher gets better outcomes as well.

Question

In the book, you talk about Al Gore becoming more playful after his campaign, and how it helped his career. Do you know of any other people in the public realm who you were surprised to learn played a lot?

Answer

No really high profile ones personally, but in some of my documentary film work, I interviewed publicly prominent scientists and theologians, etc., and the most successful of them were consummate players. Oprah has stated her recent weight gain is the result of not playing enough.

Question

Can too much play harm you?

Answer

Certainly, the gambling addictions, videogame excesses, and the compulsion to ramp up risk taking appear to be play as a force that is producing damage. As I say in my book, blaming play for these compulsive and addictive disorders that incorporate play is like blaming food for obesity.

Question

Are video games play?

Answer

Most of those I know who engage in them surely say they are fun. Addiction is a different story.

Question

What about movies?

Answer

It depends on the state the movie puts one in. Sure, most are play experiences, when you get lost in the plot and characters.

Question

Is there such a thing as better and worse quality play?

Answer

It is the degree to which the player is “lost” in the play zone that tends to determine better or worse. Wasn’t it Woody Allen who said, “I’ve never had a bad orgasm”? Same with play. If it captivates, is done for its own sake, and is pleasurable, don’t worry too much about quality.

Question

What’s a game they could have played at the recent G20 summit that would have helped things go smoother?

Answer

Well, after a long ballistic missile impasse, Reagan got Gorby laughing at his dirty jokes at the Reykjavik summit, and ostensibly that turned things around.

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  1. James V says:

    My favorite way to play happens nearly every Saturday night where my friends and I get together and play tabletop role-playing games. We roll dice of various shapes, we eat snacks, we imagine, and we have a great laugh through it all.

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  2. Stan says:

    My favourite way to play is by teasing, though I also have a mild gambling addiction.

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  3. Jon says:

    One of my favorite “work play” experiences is getting a group together on a Friday afternoon and trying to solve difficult puzzles, trivia, etc. as a group. It may not be productive in the moment, but when it comes to solving work problems together, all participants are accustomed to group problem solving. It also helps to know the other styles, strengths, etc.

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  4. Conor - Ireland says:

    Soccer, friday nights at my local park… and playing with the dog!

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  5. TJ says:

    Nothing can make a full grown man feel like a boy, like riding a bike. I highly recommend getting on one, no fancy road bike needed, cheaper the better. Jump some curbs, skid your tires; trust me, it will shave years off your life…

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  6. Jim says:

    My favorite: volleyball

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  7. Hmmmmm says:

    Play in the parks! Enjoy nature, the outdoors, fresh air and linitless creative oppotunities for play. Lose yourself in the woods and the world will be a better place. :-)

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  8. Anon says:

    Roleplay. I adore literary roleplay set in contemporary or future times — albeit with laws of physics similar to those found in action films. That is, one can usually leap through a plate glass window.

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