Everybody in the Dún Laoghaire shoe shop looked around as peals of delighted laughter rang out from a small boy posing with his big brother in front of a “magic” bendy mirror.
But the little fella was oblivious to the attention he was attracting, engrossed as he was in the distorted body images being reflected back to him. He was cavorting in front of the mirror for the pure pleasure he was getting out of it – and radiating a joyfulness that was contagious.
It was an unexpected setting for a glimpse of the “state of being” created by play. It is this altered state, according to Dr Stuart Brown of the National Institute for Play in the US, that triggers the many benefits of play.
“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” is a proverb going back hundreds of year but now there is an emerging discipline of “play science” to prove its truth. And to “dull”, we could add potentially “depressed” and “dangerous”, as we learn more about the effects of “play deprivation”.
Play is a biological drive and when it is suppressed, we suffer, particularly socially, says Brown. “Just as sleep deprivation leads to sleepiness and fatigue, play deprivation is harder to identify but has its negative consequences also.”
Brown, a psychiatrist, developed a life-long interest in the power of play after he was appointed to a commission to look into the background and motivation of Texas mass murderer Charles Whitman. An engineering student and former US Marine, 25-year-old Whitman shot dead 17 people at the University of Texas in Austin in August 1966, having first killed his wife and mother.
“We did an incredibly detailed review, including going back three generations, looking at his life in as much detail as possible,” Brown tells The Irish Times, speaking from his home in Carmel Valley, California, ahead of a visit to Dublin next month.
It was a revelation, he explains, that Whitman, a bright and very capable young man, had a very over-bearing father and “an impossible life situation”, which thwarted his natural play drive.
“His father always had an agenda in which he had to fit. His life was totally controlled and scripted; that kind of suppression prevents the emergence of what I think are the benefits of play.”
This prompted Brown to do a lot more research on imprisoned convicted killers, matching them with a comparative group on the outside with similar life stories, but who had not been involved in crime.
“The play history difference between the comparisons and the murderers was stark,” he recalls. The absence of play appeared to have a very significant effect, particularly on socialisation and handling of aggression.”
Specialised scientific research
When Brown retired from clinical medicine in 1989, he decided that play deserved much more specialised scientific research, in the same way phenomena such as sleep and dreams are measured, and he founded the National Institute for Play.
“The benefits of healthy play are profound and have been built into our nature for zillions of years. It is there for a good reason even though it appears on the surface to be purposeless. That’s a paradox.”
So how does he define play?
“It’s voluntary, done for its own sake, self-organising from within the individual, gives pleasure, takes one out of time pressure and the outcome of what you’re doing is not as important as what you’re doing,” he replies.
“It can be interrupted; it’s not driven; it’s not compulsive and it is not done to please others but to please yourself.”
Sport may, or may not, count as play. It depends on the coaching and the pressures involved, he says.
If love of the game and personal effort are not part of the process, and it’s all about kicking the ball into the goal, “period”, rather than kicking the ball because it feels good, “it becomes less play and more performance and anxiety producing”.
Electronic gaming can be categorised as play too.
However, Brown admits that as “an older guy with entrenched attitudes towards screen play”, he does not think it as healthy as being outdoors and enjoying three-dimensional play, with social contacts, and with vocal, auditory and olfactory components coming into the brain.
When gaming is driven, compulsive and excludes other possibilities of social interaction or interaction with nature, “I would say it is pathological play”.
While we are born with an intrinsic drive to play, it takes environmental factors to kindle it. Brown, who will be a keynote speaker at Early Childhood Ireland’s Global Gathering next month (see panel), gives the example of an infant responding to a mother’s smiling face.
“The infant will see that face and feel safe and respond in a hard-wired, universal way, with a smile and some gurgling noises and the mother will also respond. That process in the baby is emotionally pleasurable – wants to be repeated and is also associated, as a baby moves into older period, with a similar response to a mobile overhead or an object that is shiny.”
All future play is going to build on the base formed by those interactions between mother and infant.
“If there is no mother, and there is no face and there is no holding and no touching and no music and no sound, then you have a baby who is going to be in trouble,” he says.
Tolerance for play in younger children is high in most cultures, he observes, except, increasingly, when it comes to rough and tumble play. Children are missing out on this formative experience because it is often misunderstood.
There are signals in rough and tumble play – squealing of children during chasing, shouts from those wrestling on the ground – that can be mistaken for aggression and cause adults to step in and stop what is an essential educational process for youngsters.
“They learn the roots of empathy in early rough and tumble play without a lot of consequences,” points out Brown. It teaches them languages of play, which, if not learned well, diminishes their ability to deal with the give and take that is a normal part of socialisation.
As children grow older they are under pressure to knuckle down to academic study by adults who see play as the opposite of work – instead of recognising it as essential for learning and creativity. In fact, play will continue to shape our brains – for as long as we let it.
“Even people with dementia will find some joyfulness and alternatives in play – they are not ‘undemented’ but they get happier. It works our whole life cycle.”
Symptoms of play deficiency, both in children and adults, include a lack of interest in the environment, irritability and poor response to inter-personal stress. These may also be symptoms of something more complex but within that there is usually a discernible lack of play, he says.
The amount and kind of play needed will vary from child to child, according to temperament.
“The introverted child can be happy doing isolated activities that don’t appear to be particularly playful to the outsider but which, to that individual, may be very good.
“The extroverted, exuberant child may need to be running around and playing hour after hour in order to get a sufficient amount. It becomes a judgment call on the part of the parent or the teacher as to what is adequate.”
Drive for success
In the drive for children to succeed, parents squeeze out play at their peril. If your older child, say 10-12, is very busy with ballet, music lessons, homework, gymnastics “and that child is not joyful in those experiences – look out. You are invoking a highly successful, depressed adult,” he warns.
Likewise, in the teenage years, among students under great pressure to perform well in exams, there is often a “smouldering depression and a loss of joy which is indicative of play deficiency”.
Workplaces are slow to recognise the benefit of play, even though there are studies demonstrating how playfulness boosts productivity.
The joy of finding novelty through play is part of what makes us creative and innovative creatures, Brown says, which is really important for our ability to adapt to a changing world.
It is probably no coincidence that humans are the most playful of all species. While the drive to play in adulthood is diminished, it does not disappear.
Although taking time out to play is important, Brown stresses the value of “infusing your hourly, daily life with playful capabilities – so there is not this rigid separation between work and play”.
In western culture, the attitude is to keep them separate, he adds. “If that becomes a fixed adult pattern, I think there is play deprivation.”
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