Fifty years ago a man named Charles Whitman killed more than 30 people before being killed himself. The reason he snapped? No play. No play in his childhood, no chance to try out different responses, or let his aggression out through play.
Rats that smell a cat run and hide. This is self-protective, and appropriate. But the rats that aren’t allowed to play when they are young never come back out again, and starve to death. They never learned to manage risk through play.
Children who get more recess do better in school. Body play helps stimulate the cerebellum and create more neural connections. Object play helps strengthen the frontal lobe, where executive function lives, and increases metaphorical thinking. Playing in one’s preferred way increases the intrinsic motivation to keep going, and develops a person’s engagement and persistence in the face of adversity.
I had the great good fortune to hear Dr. Stuart Brown speak yesterday at the First Annual Bay Area Play Symposium. He has been studying play extensively for many years, and has proven the scientific backing to support more play. He is now in his 80’s and looks a couple decades younger. He wrote the book Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, and is the founder of the National Institute for Play.
I was looking out my window the other day and saw three young squirrels, smaller than their mama, in my yard. We get new squirrels every year, and as long as they don’t nest in the building they’re very cute. But this time I saw some very odd behavior. One squirrel ran part way up the fence, then jumped back down to the ground. Another rushed at a long, long, thin leaf on a bush, grabbed it, and flipped upside down. I thought at first he expected it would be strong enough to climb on and was surprised, but then I saw him do it again and again. These young squirrels were playing! I’ve never seen their mama play. I saw the three of them again today, running back and forth along the fence, leaping to the tree, leaping from branch to branch, and back to the fence. It looked like they were enjoying their strong young bodies, enjoying the feel of movement, enjoying playing. I just grinned and grinned, watching them, wishing I could leap and run like that.
I’ve heard stories of other young animals playing. I’ll have to tell you the story of the polar bear some time. I find it interesting that the young of all animals seem to know how to play more than their elders. What is it about our experience of the world that makes us stop playing? Do we feel we have to conserve our energy in order to work for food and shelter? It’s ironic that play can leave us more energized, but we think we don’t have the energy for it. And interesting that animals might feel the same way. So it must be instinctual to conserve our energy, which means it’s not easy for adults to play.
It’s not easy for adults to learn to play. Play energizes us and makes us happy. We feel, on some deep, instinctual level, that we can’t afford to play. What opposites! And no wonder that people think play and work are opposites. When I talk to people about play at work, they think I mean play during breaks, then back to serious work again. It’s not easy for people to play. It’s not easy to think of play as part of work, as a way to energize work and energize ourselves during work. So, when I write about play at work, don’t feel guilty if you think you can’t do it. Don’t assume you can’t do it. You can, if you want to. If it seems worth your energy and time. And it’s not naturally easy!