Do adults really need to play?

Why is play important, throughout life?
21 September 2020

Interview with 

Stuart Brown, National Institute for Play


table football


Do adults really need to play? Or is it just a kids' game? Stuart Brown is a psychiatrist, play researcher and founder of the National Insitute for Play in California. And he spoke to Katie Haylor about the importance of lifelong play for health and wellbeing...

Stuart - Though we are capable of imagination and imaginary play as adults, the drive to play and the percentage of time one, in adulthood, plays is less than obviously than when we were children. But the wiring of the brain to respond to play signaling occurs throughout life. It's different in various ages and cultures and genders and so on, but it's there. So that the ability to respond to playful stimuli is a part of being human through our life cycle.

Katie - So what constitutes play as an adult? Is it having a giggle, relaxing, doing a hobby?

Stuart - I like to think of the best way to define play for adults and really for children too, is as a state of being in which what you are doing and what you are experiencing is voluntary. It's fun. It gives you a sense of freedom from anxiety about the time pressure or the outcome. It's something you want to engage in again, it can be highly varied. The individual response to playful stimuli can be gardening, reading a novel, climbing a mountain, going to a pub and having fun with your buddies. You know, there are all kinds of phenomena that constitute true and or real play, but it is essentially a state of being that is different from all others. And that's not a common way of thinking of play. We think of it as a little nonsensical, it's purposeless or appears purposeless. It's not as important as real responsibility. And yet, when I look at the phenomenon of severe play deprivation, it has a profile amongst adults and children that indicates it's a necessity for being fully human.

Katie - What do you mean by that? What kind of work have you done?

Stuart - If you start with objective animal play. The rats, for example, that are bred to play, engage in very intense, rough and tumble play when they are four to 15 weeks old. And if you allow that and then evaluate the brain changes as the rats play, you find that they have much enrichment of their entire cerebral cortex, but particularly their executive function. And there is some sense that, though you can't do that ethically for humans, that human play also produces a whole array of benefits - faster learning, more resiliency, a sense of belonging to your social group, etc, that is required kind of learning for our human species. And when that is missed intensively in humans, there is a problem in empathy and in belonging to your social group. So that the experience of childhood and play throughout the lifetime is from my standpoint, very significant.

Stuart - That makes sense to me from a developmental childhood point of view, but the resilience and stuff you were talking about then, does that apply to say, if somebody doesn't play enough as an adult?

Stuart - If you take a life history of many, many people, as I have done over the years, and you look at how they view themselves and the world, if they are severely play deprived over a period of time, they lack optimism. There is a kind of a smoldering depression that is a part of the play deprivation profile. There is a rigid kind of ideology that often is a part of the world view and their values. So to me, the way of thinking about this - it's a little different cause most people don't think of play this way - is to think about something as pervasive in the human and animal phenomenon is sleeping and dreaming. And we all know that if you miss sleep and you miss dreams, there are objective phenomena. If you miss play, which is a universal human capability, over time in a very major way, there are mood and other changes that tend to occur. It's not as measurable or as simple as sleep deprivation, but there is an analogy that I think is worthwhile.

Katie - And when explaining to me what's going on in the brain at play, Stuart mentioned the work of play pioneer Jaak Panksepp, who animal behaviour expert Sarah Heath mentioned last episode when talking about cats and dogs. Stuart mentioned Jaak alongside Sergio Pellis. And Stuart explained that when studying objective animal play, these researchers removed the cerebral cortex from playful infant rats. As they grew and developed, they played just as intensively as those rats with a cerebral cortex, Stuart told me. This, he said, suggests that the neurocircuitry of play is hardwired into the survival centers of the brain.

Stuart - One of the graduate students, now a professor at Northwestern, Jeff Burgdorf, has arranged for, in experiments, for rat rough and tumble play to occur while the cerebral cortex, which is intact in his studied rats, is primed to fluoresce when genes in the cerebral cortex are activated. Jeff has found that when the rat rough and tumble play occurs, it activates 1200 prefrontal cortical genes in the rat cortex, so that there is a selective interaction between the priming centers for play and the learning portion of the cortex, which is waiting to get stimuli from the environment. So I hope that's clear. It's kind of complicated, but some very good research.

Katie - Does that suggest something pretty significant about how we've evolved to play?

Stuart - Absolutely. If you look at the long developmental evolutionary history of play itself and look at, you know, reptiles who don't play as frequently, or as vigorously as mammalian and bird species, you find a mosaic of play that is highly varied. Just like there's a mosaic of sleep that's highly varied. But you still see play occurring in the more complicated, more intelligent species. And it occurs and can be defined as a separate form of behaviour from all others.

Katie - I appreciate we live in a complex world, made up of complex societies, but do you think there's enough play around?

Stuart - It depends on the circumstances. You know, I think right now with the COVID-19 shelter at home, I think it's tough. No youth sports, no adult gatherings that are festive, you know. I think it's tough to play enough. And I think that we're gonna see some consequences from that.

Katie - Do you have any suggestions as to how people can build play into their lives? Because as you were talking, I was just wondering if it would be appropriate to kind of build play somehow into the work environment?

Stuart - No, I think it's very possible to build play into the work environment. I think it's very possible for an individual to recognise that they need it, and for them to find something in their day, that gives them a sense of freedom and a sense of fun and a sense of not relying on outcome. So that people realise that just like hand washing and good nutrition are important, so too is finding for yourself moments, even when you're stressed, that are playful. Whether it's music or dance or, you know, imaginary fantasies, it is an important element of personal health.

Katie - It seems to me that as with a lot of components of health, some people might be more privileged than others in terms of who has the time, capacity, to access this kind of headspace. Do we know very much about how things, like personal finances, do they interact with the idea of play?

Stuart - Oh, of course. I think poverty, stress, disease, economic intense worries. Those, you know, when you're not safe and you're not well fed, it's very difficult to play. But even in circumstances that are very adverse, I think it is possible to have these moments where there is some personal sense of private freedom from all of the heaviness of the day, where we recognise that experiencing that kind of safe space, even if it is temporary, is an important element of personal health.


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