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057: What is the value of play?
11th February 2018 • Your Parenting Mojo - Respectful, research-based parenting ideas to help kids thrive • Jen Lumanlan
00:00:00 00:44:42

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Does play really matter? Do children get anything out of it? Or is it just messing around; time that could be better spent preparing our children for success in life?

Today we talk with Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play, about the benefits of play for both children and – I was surprised to find – adults.

This is the first in a series of episodes on play – lots more to come on outdoor play (and how to raise kids who love being outdoors), risky play, and imaginative play.


Bjorklund, D.F., & Brown, R.D. (1998). Physical play and cognitive development: Integrating activity, cognition, and education. Child Development, 69, 604-606.

Brown, S. (2009). Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul. New York, NY: Penguin.

Christakis, D. A., F. J. Zimmerman, and M. Garrison. (2007). Effect of block play on language acquisition and attention in toddlers a pilot randomized controlled trial. Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine,161 (10), 967-971.

Csíkszentmihályi, Mihály (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper and Row.

Duckworth, A.L. (2016). Grit: The power of passion and perseverance. New York, NY: Scribner.

Elkind, D. (2003). Thanks for the memory: The lasting value of true play. Young Children 58(3), 46-51.

Lancy, D.F. (2015). The anthropology of childhood: Cherubs, chattel, changelings (2nd Ed.). Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.


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Jen:                                      [00:40]                   Hello and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. We’re kicking off a series of episodes today on the topic of play. Now I hear you wondering: play? There’s enough research about play to be able to do one episode, never mind a series of episodes?! And my response to that would be, Oh yes, there is just you. Wait, so we’re going to kick off today with an overview of the topic and then we’ll delve into various aspects of play with a particular focus on outdoor play because it’s important to me and just sometimes that’s how we pick topics around here. So today we have is our very special guest Dr. Stuart Brown, MD. I first learned of his work when I heard the National Institute for Play mentioned during a show on NPR. I thought to myself, there is a national institute for play. I have to talk to somebody from there, and so Dr. Brown, who’s the founder and director of the National Institute for Play is here to share his research and work. I was fascinated to read his book play, how it shapes the brain, opens the imagination and invigorates the soul because I was expecting it to tell me how important play is to my daughter’s development, but I wasn’t expecting it to tell me how important play is to my own wellbeing as well. So we’ll get into that to welcome Dr. Brown.

Dr. Brown:                         [01:51]                   Glad to be here Jen.

Jen:                                      [01:53]                   So let’s start with something that seems kind of obvious, but then you think about it a bit and you realize that you’re actually not quite sure what it is. So I’m wondering, can you please define play for us?

Dr. Brown:                         [02:04]                   Well, it’s very hard to define; it’s a little like love in that play is an experience and it is often prompted by pre-verbal sorts of impulses. But having said that, we always like to think of it as something that is definable, although I think most of us, if we see a puppy or kitty playing in front of us, we know that what they’re doing is play, but it’s voluntary; it’s done for its own sake. It appears purposeless. It takes one out of a sense of time. There is a diminished sense of self importance. You’re just engaged in what you’re doing. It’s fun and pleasurable. It can be interrupted. It’s not driven like addictive or other kinds of activities in general. Like to go back to it and experience it again and it is something that’s deeply instinctively embedded in the humans. So that’s a start anyhow.

Jen:                                      [03:11]                   And I’m wondering if you can talk us through, Scott Eberle, I think is how you say his name. He has a six step process of play that you describe in your book. Can you walk us through those six steps?

Dr. Brown:                         [03:22]                   I don’t know if I can go through all six steps butt Scott Eberle was the distinguished editor of the American Journal of Play from its start until just recently when he retired and he has established what he considers the elements of play, kind of like the periodic table of elements define the atomic structure. Then he goes from anticipation to poise and describes there’s anticipation, surprise, increased strength, agility, curiosity, and takes these elements, and if I had them listed in front of me. I could read them off, but he has a whole array of gradations that go from, as you anticipate, for example, an experience of play, whether it’s playing a sport or reading a novel that you’re looking forward to. There is that heightened sense of anticipation. Then once you get into the various elements of play, they establish a kind of a “state of play.” Then he and I have gone back and forth. It had lots of really sort of discussions about his play elements fit very well into the burgeoning neuroscience of play.

Jen:                                      [04:46] Mmmm. And I’m also wondering as you were reading, as you were talking through some of the elements of play, I was thinking about Czikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow, but it seems to me as though that might be more applicable to when people are working more than playing because they have goal-directed behavior and you said that the play doesn’t have goal-directed behavior. Can you help us to tease out what are the connections between play and flow?

Dr. Brown:                         [05:11]                   I don’t know that it’s correct to say that it doesn’t have goal direction. It is at the time one is experiencing it, the outcome of the experience is less important than the experience itself. That doesn’t mean that the experience doesn’t have purpose. I think one can enjoy a hike or a job and say, oh, well, you know, I’m just doing this for its own sake, and yet it increases physical fitness and personal health, so there is an outcome.

Dr. Brown:                         [05:45]                   So this is not to say that the experience of play itself doesn’t have outcome and deep purpose. It’s just that at the moment, if you’re terribly anxious about performing, you’re probably not playing as much as if you’re just doing something for its own sake.

Jen:                                      [06:04]                   And so you alluded to something there that I wanted to get into a bit more deeply and that is about the purpose of play and specifically how that differs for children from different cultures.

Dr. Brown:                         [06:16]                   Well, I don’t know that it differs; I think there are cultures that foster and cultures that suppress it, but I think particularly developmentally that the value of play and the necessity of play for wholeness and wellbeing at a full use of curiosity and engagement in the world, those are universals and they apply both to the human experience cross-culturally and they apply to social mammals at play, and so you see the necessity of particularly early developmental play, whether you’re a coyote or a dolphin or a horse or a human.

Jen:                                      [07:03]                   Okay. So this is sort of very common experience then for mammals. And is it right to say that humans have sort of perfected it and taken it to another level, or is it much the same as you see in humans as in other animals?

Dr. Brown:                         [07:20]                   We’re different in that we have language, imagination, curiosity, the search for novelty, but the patterns of play that we see in kids and in highly intelligent animals really quite similar. Then we can learn from animal play a lot about its value because laboratory scientists can objectify that and study it and suppress it and then see the benefits or the effect of a lack of play on development and in highly social mammals and that’s not an ethical thing we could do or want to do with humans.

Jen:                                      [07:54]                   Right, and I know that your work has actually focused on children and adults where children experienced play deprivation. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Dr. Brown:                         [08:05]                   Well, in a long, long time ago, over 50 years ago, I got involved in studying a mass murderer who had gone to the top of the Texas tower after killing his wife and mother. He was a 25 year old ex-Marine Eagle Scout, no legal history and [unintelligible] killed 14 people and wounded 32. It was then the largest mass murder in the U.S., which unfortunately has been superseded by may that we’ve seen in our recent time. Anyhow, we looked closely at this individual’s life and he was killed on the top of the tower by vigilante gunfire to stop his outpouring of violence, but we did a very, very detailed study of his life history going back three generations and I won’t go through the whole story, but we found – we being the commission – and we found that his father had systematically suppressed play again and again and again, so that literally this young man grew up without the experience of free play and with the need to conform to the demands and control of this sadistic and disturbed father.

Dr. Brown:                         [09:30]                   So that initial study which was done very carefully and included a very detailed review of his physiology, sort of opened my eyes to what’s going on here that play is so important, particularly in this young man’s life? And it appeared to be necessary for him to have suppressed his violent impulses, which were hidden in part of his diaries and imagination, but not been evident until this moment and the tragedy on the top of the tower. So that then led to a formal study of homicidal males and the Texas prison system for a year or so with a team and we found that the homicidal individuals who were very violent men compared to match controls had very different play history. They there were isolated or bullied or tortured or they were themselves bullies. They didn’t have a normal play background, so we found in that and some other research following, I won’t go through all of it, that have a normal rough and tumble play and the kinds of activities that most of us engage in spontaneously as children were not experienced in general by the populations of violence and social man and so that led me in the course of my long clinical career to review the play histories of everyone that I saw and the psychiatric interns and residents and psychology intern, social workers and the like that were part of my teaching career also collected these detailed…as detailed as possible play histories and one from that long and involved anecdotal history and again, they get a sense that when play is adequate, it really leads to a more fulfilled and meaningful life in one play is seriously deprived life that it has consequences and they’re not obviously homicide or murder, but there are consequences that I think are significant, so it’s from that long base that led to my, when I left clinical practice, led to my independent scholarship and establishment of the National Institute for Play.

Jen:                                      [12:06]                   Okay. So I’m curious as to some of the methodological issues with understanding the importance of play history as you’ve just described it and I imagine that people when they were children who had sub-optimal play, history’s probably also had other things going on in their homes as well. You mentioned the Texas murderer having a difficult relationship with a sub-optimal father. How do you tease out the importance of play compared to everything else that might be going on in a family where play is not valued?

Dr. Brown:                         [12:37]                   I think it’s difficult. And I think the fact that these anecdotal reviews were not all established with a rigorous research design means that one can make generalizations about that, but what you see from the lives, particularly where play is intensely, where there’s real deprivation, let’s say the child is isolated or they’ve got a psychotic mother and father, so that there’s no verbal interchange and playfulness and you begin to see the really severe deprivations, then from that and from the murderers, once you get a sense that even if there is abuse and poverty and other kinds of mayhem in the family background, still what stands out as different from a lot of other individuals who had some of those same difficulties, but were able to play, we do see that play has a nourishing, developmentally important component that leads toward wellbeing and resiliency and self organization and things that are otherwise don’t seem to happen in the absence of play.

Dr. Brown:                         [13:56]                   So I can’t tell you that you know, this is. I can write an article and a peer review group would say, okay, we can now pinpoint exactly what play does. I don’t think one can do that and separate it from some of the other issues, but when you then take a look at the animal world and then objectify and limit play highly playful, playful rats, for example, and see the effect on their development and brain function, you begin to get a sense that the experience of play among the playful social mammal is necessary for competency and wellbeing.

Jen:                                      [14:43] Alright, so that helps us to understand why play is important. So let’s talk about some of the hows we revisit pretty often on this show David Lancy’s book, The Anthropology of Childhood. And so I went back to that book and saw that there was a whole listing of entries in the index for play. And so I went through and read them and I found that in many cultures parents just don’t play with their children at all, particularly if you’re in a culture where there’s a high child mortality rate and the parents just aren’t supposed to get attached to their child. And in many cultures parents aim to raise children who are compliant. And so they do this by wearing the baby, by anticipating the child’s needs. And essentially by not interacting with the child unnecessarily, but in our culture, It’s pretty common for parents to actually play with children, but I was sort of amused to realize that children in other cultures will often play independently for hours by themselves and American parents