Serious Fun: A Q&A With the Author of Play
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.
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?
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?
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.
Wouldn’t playing during tough or emotional times be seen as callous or irresponsible?
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.
Does today’s society have a play deficit compared to, say 50 years ago, and what changed?
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.
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?
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.
Can play actually raise your I.Q.?
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.
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?
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.
Can too much play harm you?
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.
Are video games play?
Most of those I know who engage in them surely say they are fun. Addiction is a different story.
What about movies?
It depends on the state the movie puts one in. Sure, most are play experiences, when you get lost in the plot and characters.
Is there such a thing as better and worse quality play?
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.
What’s a game they could have played at the recent G20 summit that would have helped things go smoother?
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.