The Value of Play
February 9, 2014

“The opposite of play is not work, it is depression.”
-Dr. Brian Sutton-Smith, Professor of Education, University of Pennsylvania

While many people enjoy “playing,” its’ true value may be underappreciated during these modern times, where busyness and productivity is espoused, albeit within a lifestyle of increasing sedentarism.   Ample play is actually an important component of not only physical and emotional wellbeing, but it’s also a key factor in many types of skill development – especially among children.

Peter Gray, Professor of Psychology at Boston College wrote an excellent piece on the value of play, entitled  “Give childhood back to children: if we want our offspring to have happy, productive and moral lives, we must allow more time for play, not less.”

Dr. Gray’s research documents the universality of “play” among all mammals, with humans doing the most, due to their increased need for skill development (for survival) in comparison to other species.  As he notes, whether the skill is physical, social, moral, or emotional – it’s often learned or reinforced through play.

“The most important skills that children everywhere must learn in order to live happy, productive, moral lives are skills that cannot be taught in school. Such skills cannot be taught at all. They are learned and practiced by children in play. These include the abilities to think creatively, to get along with other people and cooperate effectively, and to control their own impulses and emotions.”

But, the benefits don’t just stop when we become adults.

The National Institute of Play has demonstrated the value of play throughout one’s lifespan.  Benefits are found in several contexts:

  • Health: better physical and emotional well-being
  • Relationships: more harmony and connection
  • Education: optimized learning
  • Work: increased innovation

The institute’s founder, Stuart Brown, M.D., first learned about the significance of play when studying violent behavior, noting its absence among homicidal males  (finding that play deprivation is not a cause of violence, but leads to vulnerabilities to the behavior).  As a psychiatrist and professor at the University of California, San Diego, his extensive research “demonstrated the active presence of play in the accomplishments of the very successful and also identified negative consequences that inevitably accumulate in a play-deprived life.”

Dr. Brown notes that “(Play) doesn’t have a particular purpose and that’s what’s great about play.  If its purpose is more important than the act of doing it, then it’s probably not play.”  Learn more about Dr. Brown’s inspiring work by watching his outstanding TED talk, “Play is more than fun.”

“If you’re having a bad day try this: jump up and down, wiggle around…you’re going to feel better.”
-Stuart Brown, M.D., founder of The National Institute of Play

Unfortunately, the very natural instinct to play – whether it’s engaging in games, creating art, or simply being silly – tends to become inhibited with the conditioning and demands that go along with adulthood.  Accordingly, the average adult these days does not spend enough time playing, in my opinion.  (And, this is part of the reason why many are drawn to dis-inhibitory substances like alcohol, which allow adults to act more free like children, albeit in a chemically induced way).

Needless to say, “play” should be a lifelong pursuit.  Whether your form of “play” is dance, sports, music, or casual banter – consider it of great value to your being.

Don’t look at it as a luxury; it’s a necessity!  Carve out the time to play more.

“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”

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