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Dr Stuart Brown believes we were born to play
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I'm reading
Dr Stuart Brown believes we were born to play
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I'm reading
Dr Stuart Brown believes we were born to play
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Pass it on
Conversations
12 November 2019

Dr Stuart Brown believes we were born to play

Interview by Daniel Teitelbaum
Photo by Kiana Bosman on Unsplash

Dr Stuart Brown, a psychologist knows what happens when we don’t play. His fascination for play began in psychiatry, trying to figure out the root cause for the behaviour of psychopathic murderers. Okay, that doesn’t sound super playful but Dr Brown found that suppressing play behaviour from a young age and for a long period of time seems to significantly correlate to anti-social and extremely violent behaviour later in life. He founded the National Institute of Play in California, to further study how and why we play as human beings.

After looking into the “play history” of over 6000 people, he found that the more we play the more we thrive in our relationships with others, our sense of self, and in our work. A play history can give an in-depth profile of our relationship to play, and help you discover a way back into play.

Dr Brown thinks we need to honour and prioritise play in our lives, in much the same way we should prioritise things like sleep, exercise and a balanced diet. While play might not seem to belong in that category of fundamental needs, the truth is, it does. Play can look a million different ways, it doesn’t always involve bouncing balls, trampolines and handstands. Any activity that gives an intrinsic sense of joy, keeps you intensely engaged, warps your sense of time and facilitates your creativity will do fine. Dr Brown’s story has a challenging beginning, but you’ll see by the end that you, and me, were born to play.

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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.

Kids have entirely different tastes and you could see more pure forms of play early in life, unfortunately it often becomes suppressed as we gather adult expectations.

Yeah, absolutely. I’ve found that in trying to encourage playfulness in adults it’s much less about teaching something new than it is stripping away the obstacles to playfulness. What happens in growing up into an adult that stops us from playing?

I think the drive to play is stronger when we’re very young. For example, you get a two-and-a-half-year-old and that’s all they do. You’re not going to get adult expectations and school demands and cultural constrictions to play in that age range. In developing countries there are often enough privations so that there is not as much freedom to play as one would hope.

When there is the freedom to play, you'll see spontaneous, mixed age playfulness across the board. It’s in us, it just isn’t always environmentally triggered.

So, part of creating play in your adult life would be about creating the environment that allows for play?

Yeah, I think you first have to recognise that play needs to be prioritised or honored. I think it’s a public health need for all of us at all ages. The outcomes of playfulness are that the players will have more optimism, their perseverance is greater, they are more deeply engaged in the environment and one’s body is enlivened.There are so many benefits of play that are in general not fully embraced or recognised.

What about for developing empathy, not just in a child but I think throughout life, and in doing so, moving us away from fear. Have you found signs that make you think play helps do that?

Oh my gosh yes. I think this is where rough and tumble play, chasing, play wrestling in preschool and elementary school is fundamental to understanding who you are while not hurting someone else. You know what it’s like when somebody punches you too hard, so you know not to do it yourself. None of the murderers in the prison system engaged in normal rough and tumble play. And we had 26 of them. None of them. In the comparison group, the majority of them had relatively normal rough and tumble play histories.

One thing we haven’t done, and I think we need to ask this question, because I think this may be part of why adults dismiss it. What is the definition of play?

It’s hard to define because it’s experiential. How do you define paint smell? You know the words are difficult; acrid, pungent, but that doesn’t really tell you what it’s like to smell wet paint. Same thing about love. My longitudinal view of the origins of play and the forces that drive play are pre-verbal, subcortical; they lie in the wiring of the brain that are more related to strong motivations and survival, and therefore it’s hard to verbally define.

Having said that, I think you can draw boundaries around play itself and kind of give it some definitional validity. It’s voluntary. It’s done for its own sake. The experience of playfulness is more important than the outcome from its activity. It takes one out of a sense of time, you’re not cognisant or worried about time when you’re in a state of play. It is a kind of a junction point between full consciousness and being unconscious in what we’re doing. It often appears purposeless and yet it has a deep and long-term purpose. It’s fun, it’s joyful and it changes moods.

I’ve observed people search their play histories and find a deficiency in play that makes them feel a sense of nervousness or defensiveness about it. What I find to be a soothing thing for them to hear, is that we are designed to play throughout our live and it’s never too late to play.

The book has a chapter on neoteny, the special design of the human to play through a lifetime. The kind of a retention of juvenile features biologically, which is part of our primate human design.

There's no question that even in dementia wards, where people are compromised in their brain function, if you bring play to them their propensity for agitation and need for sedating medicine lessens.

Their ability to function better is remarkably related to their ability to get back into old patterns of play.

What’s the relationship between play and finding a sense of passion and purpose in the world?

I feel that’s really critical. People who act on their play impulses and form a vocation and friendships and other elements of their life motivated to have some joyfulness and play, they have a more meaningful and fulfilled life.It’s very difficult if you’re extrinsically motivated by a reward system that may allow one to be successful monetarily, but extrinsic rewards usually offer a sense that a really empowered life is missing. So, I think play and the establishment of a meaningful life are in harmony with each other.

I think every parent who want to see their kids live as fulfilled and empowered as possible, need to understand what their kid’s natural bent towards play is.

That’s great advice for parents, what other advice would you give to parents who might be new to this idea of how important play is?

Don’t over-organise the kid. Let them have some say for themselves. The parent on the sideline watching a 6-year-old play soccer who gets really upset that the kid doesn’t score a goal, they are not teaching playfulness and allowing them to develop their own natural skills. I think one of the things you see worldwide is that kids of mixed age playing together tend to work out amongst themselves ways of keeping the play going. Adult supervision, although it’s important to prevent mayhem, needs to tread lightly.

What do you want for the future of play? What do you think needs to shift for us to have a more playful society?

Teach elementary kids to learn the languages and complexities that are part of becoming a consummate player. It develops the ability to socialise, to belong to a group, to have empathy for others, to know yourself, to live authentically from within, and find meaning.

It is really fundamental to human well-being and ultimately has a lot to do with our long-term species survival.

An activity for you  – Find your play persona

“Every infant, if safe, well fed and surrounded by environmental richness, intrinsically responds in highly individual gleeful manner to objects. body play, music, touch, etc…” In Dr Stuart Brown’s Book, Play, he writes of eight play personas, find your play persona to find the right play-state for you. Ask yourself these three questions:

  • Which of these personas are you more drawn to?
  • How has the way you’ve played changed over time?
  • Put a score out of 10 next to each persona. Think of one form of play that fits into your lowest scoring persona, middle score and highest score. Engage in all three of those activities and see if you were right about the way you like to play.

The Joker – The most basic and extreme player throughout history.  Their play revolves around some kind of nonsense.  Parents make infants laugh by making silly sounds, blowing raspberries, and generally being foolish.  Adult jokers often play practical jokes and may look for social acceptance by making other people laugh.  E.g.  George Clooney. The joker may also have the role of giving voice to truths that can only be expressed in humor – like to court jester in mediaeval times.

The Kinaesthete – These are people who like to move to think.  They may be happiest dancing, swimming, walking, playing football or doing yoga.  While they play games, competition is not their main focus.  They are in it for the bodily movement itself.

The Explorer – Exploring can be physical – going to new places;  emotional – searching for a new feeling or sensation; or mental – researching a subject.  We all began as babies exploring the world. Adult explorers explore to remain creative.  E.g. Richard Branson.

The Competitor – A person who breaks into creative play by enjoying a competitive game with specific rules.  They enjoy playing to win.  The games may be solitary or social – a solitary video game or a social game like football.  They’ll often bet on outcomes.

The Director – Directors enjoy planning and executing scenes and events.  They are born organizers. At their best, they are the party givers.  At worst, they are manipulators.  All the world’s a stage and the rest of us are only players in the director’s game.

The Collector – Any random object can be fair game for a collector.  They may collect antiques, wine, ties, or travel the world to see solar eclipses.  They may enjoy collecting as a solitary activity or find it the focus of intense social connection with others.

The Artist / Creator – For the artist/creator, joy is found in making things.  This might be painting, woodwork, knitting, furniture-making or gardening.  They may show off their creations or never reveal them to anyone.  The point is to make or decorate something.

The Storyteller – For the storyteller, imagination is the key to play.  They might be novelists or playwrights or simply people who enjoy reading stories or watching movies.  Anything – for example, a tennis match – can potentially be viewed as an exciting drama.

Daniel Teitelbaum

Daniel Teitelbaum is a faculty member in The School of Life, as well as a performer, radio broadcaster, teacher and facilitator. Daniel specialises in creating playful, memorable and meaningful experiences for people. Daniel has been a strategy consultant working with social enterprise, the Head of Content at The School of Life Australia and an associate teacher of design at Monash University. With a background in philosophy, law and theatre studies, in recent years Daniel has focused on play-based professional development for companies, NFPs and local governments – using games, toys and theatre to help others develop important skills and ways of working. Visit playfulthinking.com.au to get in touch.

Photo by Kiana Bosman on Unsplash

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