In 2009 you wrote the book, Play. How exactly did you come to be interested in play?
My father’s side of the family was extremely playful, lots of games and hijinks. I had a grounding in a play-oriented family that enjoyed celebrations, vacations, games and I had that early conditioning that play wasn’t something strange.
I went to medical school and became very engaged in the work, focusing on psychiatry and became fascinated with the origins of violence and aggression in humans. In the late 60s there was a particularly tragic case in Texas, a young man committed the largest mass murder in the history of the US
I was asked to study the case in an attempt to understand what his motivation was. Why did a guy with no criminal history and no mental health history, commit such a heinous crime?
I determined that the suppression of play behavior, which was systematic, continuous and lifelong, was a developmental problem for him. He hid a lot of his aggression and violent impulses behind a mask of normalcy and mimicry, but he had a great deal of violent emotions within him.
I then spent a year studying homicidal males in a prison setting. The play histories of the murderers were vastly different to the non-violent comparison group, they were strikingly deficient in having normal play behavior.
These two studies piqued my curiosity about play behaviour. Where does it come from? How did it evolve? What are the benefits? What if it isn’t there? And so for the next 30 years, I’ve collected and reviewed 6000 individual play histories from patients, residents in psychology and social workers.
How do you take a play history?
It’s a one-on-one interview and usually takes 90 minutes. It’s about building up a sense of what play was for them in their childhood. The books that were read, the photos that were taken, the parents’ approach to play, were there pets, did they encounter bullying and what sort of toys were there.
You begin to get a review of the cultural and historical envelope that gives a sense of what this individual’s play experiences were like. With the comparison groups you get a spectrum of pretty normal play behavior, culturally engendered in its patterns but nonetheless a pretty positive history. In the homicidal patients, you see a pattern of isolation, abandonment, bullying, home deprivation and abuse.
The taboos of violence were often broken in the home. The child was often harshly disciplined and over controlled or very isolated, so they didn’t learn the developmentally more complex patterns of play that we take for granted.
Where possible I would always get a three-generational review, to understand the parents and grandparents’ relationship to play.
Is that related to the play personas that are in the book?
I think the play personas we possess are intrinsically wired into us as givens.What it is that produces gleefulness. Do we enjoy social play more than body play or game play? Do we like storytelling or theatre or collecting things? These preferences that we have intrinsically are our Play Persona.
If you see kids in a playground you can spot who likes to play, who likes exuberant play action, who likes to sit and examine the flowers that are by the schoolyard.