Who has time to play these days? Life is pretty darned serious. But play is essential for both kids and grown-ups to stay healthy, creative, and productive, according to Stuart Brown, author of the new book Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul (Avery, $24.95). Brown, a retired psychiatrist in Carmel Valley, Calif., has spent decades studying the effects of play on children and adults. Here's an edited version of our conversation.
Schools are eliminating recess and piling on the homework, too. But you say that there's lots of evidence that kids actually do better in school with more play, not less. How's that?
The evidence is solid and growing that not only academic performance but [also] attention span is improved in direct correlation to the amount of play. Just get kids doing rough-and-tumble play, and their mental health improves.
But the No Child Left Behind mandates have put a lot of pressure on teachers, and that has meant less recess, less PE time, which means more sedentary kids with less playtime. The illusion that playtime hampers academic performance is one that has to be dispelled by the evidence of what play does.
You're a medical doctor, a psychiatrist. How'd you decide to devote yourself to studying something as fluffy-sounding as play?
Many years ago, in 1966, I was enlisted to run a major study of a mass murderer in Texas, the Texas tower sniper. The governor and others were terrified that there were Charles Whitmans all over the place. We tried to figure out why he did what he did. A major linkage was the amazingly repressive parenting he had. It repressed play from when he was a tiny child and led him to be inflexible, really a hollow person seething with a lot of internal rage. It had not been modified because he had never experienced play.
I then did a pilot study of young murderers throughout the state of Texas and found their play histories were very different than those of matched controls. In the years since, I have continued to take play histories, not of murderers but of everyone I could talk to. I have collected a lot of solid anecdotal evidence of the value of play. These 6,000 play histories certainly demonstrate the long-term consequences of play deprivation, which include lost productivity and creativity, and mild depression.
You say that animals give us clues to the biological necessity of play.
There is a real sweeping science on the value of play in the animal world. In rats, for instance, play reduces impulsivity similar to human ADHD. There is now an emerging play science in humans, too. If you look at the brain impulses that foster play behavior, they're embedded in the human brainstem, the same parts of the brain that initiate sleep and dreams. This is major league science that hasn't gotten policy attention.
Did you play as a kid?
A lot. I grew up on the South Side of Chicago, at 110th and Bell. There were lots of vacant lots and a stable neighborhood. Homework wasn't an issue back then, so when school was out, we were gone. We had a big yard with a lot of climbing trees. Our house and yard were kind of the center of play for the neighborhood. My parents were not the kind of people who were fastidious; if someone tracked mud into the house, it was not the end of the world. It certainly grounded me personally.
And how do you play now?
You name it. I love tennis, and I've got a group of codgers I play tennis with. Got a bunch of grandchildren, and it's incredibly fun to tell stories and play with them. I just got back from trying to catch my 80-year-old brother, chasing him up 9,000-foot hills on a cross-country ski trip. And [the interview] we're doing right now is fun.
That sounds nice for a retired psychiatrist, but for most families, both parents are working, and the kids are swamped with school and homework. How can we make time for play?
It's terribly important to do this, particularly as industries collapse. Our new way of life is going to require a lot of flexibility and adaptivity. Those are byproducts of play. We have to incorporate that into life, even when life is tough. If all you have is fear of the future, you're not going to use your imagination to find an alternative. Play gives you the ability to be more flexible and adaptable and resilient, all of which enables you to handle an unexpected world better.
Say a kid is in middle school and has a large backpack full of books, a lot of homework; everyone's tired at suppertime. Instead of infusing the homework with curiosity and dialogue, the homework is a chore that has to be done. I have four kids, so I did plenty of this myself when they were growing up. It's possible to mix learning and play, by infusing a sense of joyful curiosity in the process. Let the kids know that this is a personal priority for the family.
It's not irresponsible to infuse play into the lives of our families. It's just the opposite; it's the training ground for responsible adulthood. I've been lecturing at Stanford, with these perfect sophomores that make me feel that they should get a Nobel Prize and I should be their janitor. But there's a soulless quality they have, a need to please everyone, that is dangerous. They are under tremendous pressure. That needs to be modified. This is my late-in-life mission.