The importance of play

Even as an adult, play is important for our health
18 December 2020

Interview with 

Stuart Brown, National Institute for Play


Smiling woman


Have you played enough today? We all know we should try and move our bodies a bit and eat some vegetables for our health, but for some researchers, it’s also really important that we try and introduce some playfulness into our lives where we can. And playing is not just for kids, as Katie Haylor heard from Stuart Brown of the National Institute for Play in California back in September…

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.

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.


Agreed, but let's come up with some activities called PLAY others can use! For instance, I have been playing wordgames with several colleagues - a game that involves timed use of finding words. IN a normal world, I would never play these games, but I find that after playing them, I feel relaxed and rejuvenated and motivated to do better. Just an idea....humbly submitted by me!

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