Health Starts Where We Play
Play “undernutrition” can erode children’s emotional, cognitive and physiologic well-being.
I have just ended a long road trip to a cousin’s distant Utah ranch with my dog, Jake, and we are beat. But as I shut down the engine alongside the pasture where a greeting menagerie of animals and relatives are congregated and open the car door, something magical happens. Jake is out of the car, a blond Labrador blur. He is in a full “state” of doggie play, blasting into the maze of animals and people without hesitation.
I worry about how the horses will react, but they don’t shy. In a flicker the horses are jumping and gamboling. It seems that we all — adults, kids, dogs, horses — recognize that Jake is consumed with the joy of play. All of us are caught up in this short-lived moment. All of us feel completely exuberant. We catch our breaths and laugh. The tension and fatigue of the drive has fallen from my shoulders. The kids are giggling. The rest of the day has a lightness and ease that I hadn’t felt for a long time.
On that day, Jake gave a compact demonstration what years of academic and clinical research have taught me about the power of play. Most obviously, it is intensely pleasurable. It energizes us and enlivens us. It eases our burdens. It renews a natural sense of optimism and opens us up to new possibilities. Those are all wonderful, admirable, valuable qualities. But that is just the beginning of the story.
In recent years neuroscientists, developmental biologists, psychologists, social scientists and researchers from every point of the scientific compass are coming to an understanding that play is a profound biological process. It has evolved over eons in many animal species. It shapes our brain and makes us smarter and more adaptable. It fosters empathy and makes it possible for us to live in complex social groups. It lies at the core of creativity and innovation. It prompts us to be continually, joyously, physically active, combating obesity and enhancing overall health and well-being. It can interrupt the damage done by chronic stress, and even gives the immune system a bounce.
And of all animal species, humans are the biggest players of all. In short, we are built through play, and we are built to play. When we play, at any age, we are engaged in the purest expression of our humanity, the truest expression of our individuality. Is it any wonder that often the times we feel most alive, those that make up our best memories, are moments of play?
Play is a basic need. It is a biological requirement for normal growth and development. The scientists associated with the National Institute for Play are united in their concern about “play undernutrition,” noting that the corrosive effects of this form of starvation gradually erode emotional, cognitive and physiologic well-being. So a major aspect of sedentarism, obesity, and poor stress management can be readily linked to play starvation.
If these claims seem over the top, let’s look at just one kind of basic play, rough and tumble play. It is characterized in preschool kids by chasing, squealing, punching, diving into cardboard boxes, fantasy games, role-playing and more. It is spontaneous is kid-driven, and fun. The participants stay friends despite what looks to adults like chaos. As kids grow up, it changes forms, but still remains defined as a separate category of behavior. It evolves into competition, rule-setting, verbal jousting and a myriad of forms, all of which are underlain by a “state” of play. It produces the uplifting symphony of sounds heard from most fun playgrounds worldwide, and the prime outgrowths it offers are the promotion of friendships, the establishment of empathy, and the capacity to handle exclusions and humiliations. When unimpeded by adult oversupervision, (or allowed to deteriorate into chaos when undersupervised), it produces active trust and a sense of belonging; it fosters negotiation, workable rules and limit setting, and sets in motion many of the foundations that allow later adult communities to flourish.
The consequences of missing this sort of playful experience are destructive. Rats deprived of the opportunity to engage in rough and tumble play grow up socially inept, inflexible, can’t tell friend from foe. They are emotionally fragile. Though they can forage and survive physically, they do not reproduce, nor can they handle unexpected stresses that playful rats handle with ease. Play crafts their “social brain.” My own research supports this observation in humans. My studies of violent antisocial young men revealed that their rough and tumble play patterns in childhood were very different and deficient as compared to a group of matched normal populations. They were emotionally fragile, rigid in their interpersonal relationships, and unable to handle aggressive impulses when confronted with stressful situations, very much like the rats.
If play is so important, what happens to it? Nearly every one of us starts our lives playing quite naturally. As children,
we don’t need instruction in how to play. We just find what we enjoy and do it. Whatever “rules” there are to play, we can learn from supportive adults and our playmates.
From our play we learn how the world works, and how friends interact. And about the mystery and excitement that the world can hold in a tree house or an old tire swing. At some point, though, its naturalness can often be suppressed. Adults forget what it was like to be little and feel they must organize their kids, cut down on unstructured time, get kindergarten kids ready to read early so they can succeed in life, even though the data we now have shows that this early preschool pressure and later diminished recess time result in fewer accomplishments in the long term. But nonetheless, we are told that unstructured play and games are unproductive, a waste of time, even sinful.
If there is any doubt about the essential nature of play in humans, consider what life would be like without it. A life without play is pretty grim — no sports, no books, no movies or art, no humor or irony. Without play, people become rigid in their thinking, stereotypical in their behavior and emotionally depressed. Ebenezer Scrooge is a good example of such a person. The truth is that play is what makes life lively. It is essential to long-term intimacy. It fosters empathy and understanding of others.
If we are to thrive as individuals and as a culture, we need to recognize the fundamental role of play in our lives. We have to foster a culture in which play is not seen as an empty activity or a waste of time. Like sleep, it is a biological need that has been sculpted by evolution over millions of years, and an activity essential to our health and well-being.
To be whole, happy and successful individuals, we must remember what Jake knows naturally. If we can do that, we will find ourselves leaping forward into the day, exuberantly pursuing everything that life has to offer.
Copyright 2010 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Used with permission from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.