A Paradox of Play

In my last post I presented reasons why play is an important part of life, is highly beneficial to both children and adults, and is most likely a biological necessity not only for humans but many types of animal as well.

This being so, why don’t we take play more seriously? I think part of the explanation lies in a paradox about play.

This is from Stuart Brown’s working definition of play:

… the first quality of play that sets it off from other activities is its apparent purposelessness. Play activities don’t seem to have any survival value. They don’t help in getting money or food. They are not done for their practical value. Play is done for its own sake… It is also voluntary — it is not obligatory or required by duty.

For something to truly be play, and give the experience of playing, it has to be something that you do for the heck of it, without attaching any greater purpose or significance to it. If you were to do the same activities but motivated by an earnest desire for self-improvement because you know play is meant to be good for you, the activity would automatically cease to be play, the fun would greatly diminish or go out of it altogether, and you wouldn’t get the benefits of playing!

Taking play too seriously destroys it!

Now of course one can “work at” aspects of one’s play. For example you might have a training schedule for your sport, practice sessions for your musical instrument and so on. As long as the ultimate context remains that you follow your pursuit for its own sake, and from your own choosing, this generally doesn’t undermine experiencing playfulness.

The sweet spot of taking things seriously but also lightly is often the most rewarding of all.

At times naturally our “taking things seriously” can get out of hand, and then the once refreshing and delightful hobby becomes another chore to be gotten through. When this happens we start to lose enthusiasm and eventually feel burned out altogether.

“Lightness” also has two major pitfalls. Firstly, while pure spontaneous goofing around is a necessary and rewarding form of play, in many kinds of hobbies that is not enough to make for a satisfying amount of progress. You might be writing your novel for the heck of it, but if you don’t seem to be getting anywhere after months of intermittent writing, you’ll probably get disheartened. Oftentimes your hobby becomes much more fulfilling when you “get serious” about it.

The second pitfall is where we came in: You take your play so lightly that you think it’s not important to make room for it. This can happen with an individual’s personal decisions, but also with choices that societies make. When there is pressure to be achieving ever higher grades, it’s easy for school authorities do decide that fripperies like sport, art and music are relatively dispensable. And when budgets are under stress, why not just sell off the playing fields? So we do that for while, maybe a generation, and then start to worry about inactivity and obesity in kids.

The paradox of play makes our play lives a bit of a balancing act. Sometimes everything is just great, other times it veers off too much one way or the other. Sometimes we need to “lighten up”, other times “get serious”. Perhaps we can take that as a fun challenge in itself!

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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!