The Necessity of Play

I’ve written before about the work of psychologist Stuart Brown, an expert on play in both humans and animals. Yesterday I was reading his book and was struck by a key point: play is a biological necessity.

Early in his book he recounts a striking incident in the Canadian far north:

Hudson seemed to be a very dead dog. That’s what musher Brian La Doone thought as he watched … a polar bear quickstep across the snowfield, straight toward the sled dogs … La Doone spent much of his life in the polar bear’s territory, and judging from the appearance of this particular bear he knew it had not eaten in months. With a skull-crushing bite or a swipe of its massive claws, the bear could easily rip open one of his dogs within seconds.

But Hudson had other things on his mind … Hudson didn’t bark or flee. Instead, he wagged his tail and bowed, a classic play signal.

To La Doone’s astonishment, the bear responded to the dog’s invitation. Bear and sled dog began a playful romp in the snow…

After fifteen minutes, the bear wandered away, still hungry but seemingly sated by this much-needed dose of fun. La Doone couldn’t believe what he’d just witnessed, and yet he was even more astonished when the same bear returned the next day … for another round of frolicking with Hudson … Every night for a week, the polar bear and Hudson met for a playdate…

Photos of this kind of play can be seen in his TED talk on YouTube.

What does this have to do with the supposed necessity of play? Brown’s argument runs like this:

  1. Play is widespread in a large variety of animals
  2. Life in the wild is tough, and evolution does not permit resources to be wasted on frivolous luxuries, least of all on such an enormous scale
  3. Therefore play must be a biological necessity, and one that serves an important purpose across large swathes of the animal kingdom

In his book he discusses what functions play might serve, including examining the effects of play deprivation on animals and among people. Among other things he makes an illuminating comparison in suggesting that play be considered in the same category as sleep and dreaming. They serve complex purposes, many of which we don’t yet understand, and in the past people have greatly underestimated the downsides of skimping on them.

Among other things, sleep and dreaming play an important role in consolidating the learning from the waking day. And play is also a crucial component of learning. In another context I have heard it said that “Some things can only be learned through play”.

If we replace “play” with “natural curiosity, exploration, and trying stuff out for the heck of it” it’s pretty clear that it’s an important element in developing many kinds of skills.

Stuart Brown explains how for example NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has found that one of the key markers of the kind of people they need is that they enjoyed making and fixing things like radios and such as a hobby in childhood. People with stellar academics from top schools turn out not to be good enough practical problem solvers for them if they hadn’t had early experiences of just goofing around with technology.

Likewise James Gleick in his biography of Richard Feynman ponders what made some of Feynman’s childhood contemporaries successful scientists and some not. The most noticeable thing to him was that those who excelled as adults were those who also did things like recreational math puzzles for enjoyment. In other words those for whom math or science or engineering was also play.

So, make room for a bit of play in your life!

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3 thoughts on “The Necessity of Play

  1. I think the word “play” has a lot of cultural baggage associated with it. Some people will jump to interpret it as something “childish” and an attribute not to be encouraged in adults. Which is a mistake. As well as the practical benefits of play as you’ve described, I also like the quote from Mencius. “The great man is he who does not lose his child’s-heart”.

    • I’m not a parent but losing your child’s heart would seem to be extremely careless. 🙂

      On a more serious note, I wonder how much this varies from culture to culture? Stuart Brown’s TED talk seems to imply that even in Middle Ages Europe, play was a more integral part of life for adults than it is nowadays.

      While even in our own lifetimes, children’s lives have gone from having lots of time for free-form play of their own devising to highly organized activities supervised by adults, often done with an eye for ticking boxes for college entrance somewhere down the line.

  2. Pingback: A Paradox of Play – Thinking Play

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