Play is something I’ve become in very interested in since having kids and ditched my left-brain-focused career plans for a more creative vocation (that would be writing stories *grin*). I picked “writer at play” for my tagline, not because I am a super-playful person but because I need the reminder to keep from turning the things I love doing into sheer drudgery. So, when I heard about this book, I knew I had to get it.
Brown looks at play through many different lenses, including research done in animal behavior, neuroscience and child development. He explores what play is, why play is ingrained across species, and what happens when we are deprived of play. In our world, play is considered childish, selfish, and unimportant; not pertinent to the serious business of having a job, raising a family, making a contribution to society. Brown argues instead that play is a vital component of human development and healthy psyches.
There’s a lot of thought-provoking material in this book, so I’ll highlight those things that stood out for me.
Play is hard to define, but Brown narrows play down to a handful of properties. For him, play: is apparently purposeless; is voluntary; has inherent attraction (no one needs to twist our arms to do it); gives freedom from time (I was having so much fun I forgot what the time was!); diminishes our consciousness of self (we are too involved to care what a spectacle we’re making of our selves); has improvisational potential (let’s try this a different way this time…); and provides continuation desire (when can we do this again??).
What is most interesting to me about his definition is that he doesn’t tag certain activities as inherently playful. Rather, play is a state of mind. For example, some people run because they want to be in shape. Others run because their friends do, or because it’s part of their training for something else. And some people run for the love of it, because that is what they want to do, because running itself is an end, not a means. In an example closer to home, for some of us writing is sheer joy, for others abject misery (yes, there are people out there who feel that way, strange as it might seem to me and you ;)).
In discussing the role of play in child development, Brown emphasizes the importance of rough-and-tumble play, strangely enough in preventing adult violence. He cites a study which found a striking lack of rough-and-tumble play in the childhoods of a group of murderers in Texas (pg. 26). So, as the mother of three youngsters who have a often disturbing tendency to want to wrestle, poke, grab, and tickle each other–whew!
Brown emphasizes that not all of us play in the same way, and presents a few different play personalities: the Joker, the Kinesthete, the Explorer, the Competitor, the Director, the Collector, the Artist/Creator and the Storyteller. Most of us probably fall into a number of categories. I can safely put myself in the Storyteller category, probably with some overlap in Explorer (this refers to not just physical exploration, but intellectual, too). Competitions just make me foul (unless I win :D), and I’m too much of the sedentary and serious type to fit into the first two.
Brown then goes on to describe what play-deprivation looks like, and how we as adults can recover play in out lives. Our children are luckier in that they have a stronger drive to play, but overscheduling and the cutting out of “extras” like art and music in schools make it difficult for our youngsters to play. The opposite of play, says Brown, is not work, but depression. Where work and play meet, Brown finds creativity, springing out of an amalgamation of purpose and spontaneity.
How can we recover play, then? Brown recommends several methods, the biggest one being movemnet. Movement is the original play, the proto-play, the things that babies first engage in. Physical activities get past mental defenses. Since my play personality is more of a sedentary one (reading in bed, writing on the computer), I forget to get up and get moving when I get stuck. Taking a play history–remembering the moments of pure fun and play–is another. We can also make time and space for play, and give ourselves permission to try things and fail.
Brown also delves a bit into the dark side of play, such as video game addiction and the beatings of homeless persons by laughing hoodlums. He is, I feel, too quick to dismiss those as not being really play. I also don’t buy into Brown’s conclusions about play as the answer to all the world’s evils—it does get a bit over-the-top. But he does bring into focus the importance of play in our lives.
Since having read this book, I am more mindful of what activities refresh me, make me loose track of time, where I take more pleasure in the process than the product. These include: playing piano; meeting a friend at a cafe in the evening after our husbands put the children to bed (how free and yuppie-ish we felt!); making a movie using goofy photos of the kids, complete with soundtrack and story; putting on music and dancing with children; getting lost in a book, or two, or more; and (this may sound bizarre) doing revision worksheets in Excel for Quartz (hey, even Left Brain wants to play–in its own way!).
How have you played recently?