Monday Morning, July 28, 2008
I know California well enough to consider Monterey/Carmel to be the perfect place for a retirement age physician who is also a psychiatrist to establish a non-profit organization called the National Institute for Play.
It may well have been the inspiration for Google’s upper management, who make play an integral part of the work day. The theory is that when people play, they are more creative, energetic and productive. Tour the offices of Google, and it will look more like a scene from Tom Hanks’ movie BIG than the shades of gray traditional cubicle arrangement we usually associate with the work day. Google is a giant, colorful, noisy play room. And it’s likely the primary reason the internet company was named the best place to work in 2007 by Fortune magazine.
What better place to play than Monterey/Carmel? Dr. Stuart Brown had a fascinating career. It began when the young psychiatrist was assigned to probe the twisted minds of homicide convicts. He brought a new question to them. Did they engage in purposeless, creative, physical play as a child? He worked on an unlikely theory – that rough and tumble play in boys during their childhood actually decreased the likelihood that they would become violent criminals. Research emerged, suggesting that physical play has a profound effect in the healthy development of children. It positively impacts socialization. Problem-solving. Decision-making. Play maps out the brain’s network of connections; “hard wires” itself for useful purposes in other activities. As his research developed, he also studied the effects of “play-deprivation.” It can be devastating.
The young doctor interviewed cold-blooded murderers. He reached a startling conclusion. None of these incarcerated, convicted criminals engaged in the type of tempestuous wrestling and chasing common in healthy families. The doctor understood that this was only one of many contributors to malicious behavior. But, he concluded, it’s a significant one.
It prompted more research. We might call it the physiology of play. He encountered other colleagues with a similar ambition; some who studied play in the wild. We humans are not the only species who play. Dr. Brown associated with field researchers who observed the behaviors of chimpanzees and wolves and bears. Play is commonplace, and essential to learning, and surviving.
So now, Dr. Stuart Brown has become an articulate and energized advocate of play. He richly illustrates the point. He is convinced that we humans are wired to benefit from open, strenuous, free play. It’s not only a need for children in development. It’s essential at every life stage. And at every level, play-deprivation, as he calls it, has consequences.
Dr. Brown connects lack of play to anti-social behaviors. Depression, obesity, and sedentary living are symptoms of the play-deprived life. All the diseases associated with those disorders follow. If the good doctor is right, play-avoidance is costly.
He expresses concerned about our safety obsession. Over-protective parenting keeps children from the kind of play they need. He calls some of our new, over-designed playgrounds sterile. Boring. Eliminate all the risks, and the kids have no fun.
Play is, by definition, risky. The good doctor suggests that a broken bone, a cut that requires stitching, play that requires a first aid kit, well, all this is good healthy stuff. This is how kids learn. (All that, the doctor will say, is in the context of a host of disclaimers and qualifiers. Ha!)
Kids need play. Parents need it, too. Seniors need it. Dr. Brown advocates play at every life stage. “That’s the way were are wired,” he says.
So I think about our son and sons-in-law wrestling on the floor with their rascals, chasing them around the corners, tossing them up in the air or into the pool, squealing with delight – and it makes me smile.
No wonder these kids are so happy and smart and fun.
So here we are in the middle of summer. We are leaders. We know a somber, grim outlook is no way to inspire.
Maybe we need to let it go for awhile and engage in what might otherwise be considered purposeless play. Take a risk. Push it to the edge. Laugh out loud.
And follow the good doctor’s advice.
Copyright, Kenneth E Kemp, 2008
Thanks to Krista Tippet, Speaking of Faith, for introducing me to the work of Dr. Brown