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?

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.


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.

James V

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.


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


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.

Conor - Ireland

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


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...


My favorite: volleyball


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. :-)


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.

Doctor T

Photography and video art. These can be (like any serious art form) as much work as my 'day job'. The video art includes performances where I lug 2 large suitcases full of gear, set ting up, performing for a couple of hours, then tearing the whole thing down.

Sometimes stressful, and often exhilarating -- it;s my notion of serious fun.

Shameless self-promotion: The work can be seen at and


I regularly walk on border walls/ benches next to side walks. And I've been learning to ride a "ripstick" in 5 minute sessions when taking my son to Toys backwards "R" Us.


We have family game night every Monday night. Also, tickling and poking between my sons and myself, they are grown but it never gets old. A fun play thing for work is Photobooth effects, I carry my laptop around and we make faces and get all happy and goofy...lots of laughs. I like little kids, they are the best to play with cause they don't care if they look silly.

Rod Gillies

I build a lot with LEGO. It's a great way to play, do something with the kids, and I find it a good way to de-stress.

It's the most relaxing thing - browsing through a pile of bricks, looking for the right thing, clicking it into place and ending up with something physical which you have created.


Playing with Aldo, our French bulldog


#10: I love walking along border walls/benches too, my wife always laughs at me though.

For me, the play that really captivates me is music. I can easily get lost in music, whether just listening or mixing records or playing my guitar/keyboard. I can lose hours at a time doing this.


I love board games (chess, go, Puerto Rico, Agricola, etc.). My wife and I play whenever our nights are open. I also enjoy a good basketball or football game on TV once in a while.


Badminton or frisbee with my kids in the backyard. We're so bad, it's funny. Loved your book, Dr. Brown.


Running on a trail in the woods, with the music of nature all around me.


For a little context, I'm an engineer. I have a tendency to take on projects, sometimes on a whim and if it's a on time project often nigh obsessively. For longer term projects I've becomes rather good and baking break, cooking in general, photography and crochet. On the shorter term, I might decide I am going to learn how to refinish a piece of furniture, grow tomatoes, or fashion an old bedspread into a headboard. I also get the magazine "games" and will tend to favor one kind of puzzle or another, going through back issues to find uncompleted puzzles of that type.

On a day to day basis, internet browsing is a regular habit of mine, and akin to the traditional "smoke break" at work. It's how I come up for air. I have my web comics and freakonomics, the oddly enough news, and often whatever bit of trivia it occured to me I needed to look up on my way to work.


Sports always qualify, but especially something less competitive and more laid back. Frisbee or soccer in a park always destress me more than playing a competitive game of basketball or hockey.

Mike Franz

I play an online version of the boardgame RISK, on a website called It's free, and you have 24 hours to move when it's your turn, so you only have to play for about 5 minutes each day. Even when I'm swamped with work, I always make sure I take a few minutes to make my move.