Just the other day, I was walking near a park close to our home and heard what I can only describe as the joyous squeal of a toddler who’d just gone down a slide.

And I’ll always remember the look of pure joy on the face of our Golden Retriever, Lucy, as she chased after a tennis ball. This is the joy of play. By definition, play is purposeless and it’s fun.

As we become adults though, taking time out of our busy schedules for the purpose of play feels like a guilty pleasure – more of a distraction from “real” work and life.

Dr. Stuart Brown, a recent guest on one of our Learning Well radio shows, has found that play is anything but trivial.

It is a biological drive as integral to our health as sleep or nutrition. In fact, our ability to play throughout life is an extremely important factor in determining our success and happiness.

Dr. Brown’s Study of Play

Dr. Brown has spent his career studying animal behavior and conducting more than six thousand “play histories” of humans from all walks of life – from serial murderers to Nobel Prize winners.

His book, Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, explains why play is essential to our social skills, adaptability, intelligence, creativity, ability to problem-solve, and more.

Play is hardwired into our brains and is the mechanism by which we become resilient, smart, and adaptable people.

Play also has profound implications for child development and the way we parent, education and social policy, business innovation, productivity, and even the future of our society.

Animal Research and Play

Research has determined that when animals are play-deprived, they don’t develop a normal brain. For instance, rats are hardwired to play in their juvenile years, just as they are hardwired to flee and hide when they smell the odor of a cat.

In one study, rats were divided into two groups: one group was allowed to play while the other was prevented from it. When a collar saturated with cat odor was introduced to the two groups, all rats fled and hid.

The rats that weren’t allowed to play never came back out and died. The rats that were allowed to play carefully came out, slowly looked around, and survived.

In another interesting scenario, that was captured in a series of photographs by a German photographer, a 1200-pound polar bear with a fixed, predatory look, approached a group of tethered Huskies.

But the fixed and rigid behavior of the bear, which often results in a meal, changed when one of the female Huskies did a play “bow” and started wagging her tail.

They ended up pawing and playing together and the bear returned each day for five more days to continue the play. An incredible differential in power was overridden by a process of nature that’s in all of us.

The Benefits of Play

Play is instinctive and suppressing it makes children and adults more vulnerable to depression, anxiety, and impulsivity.

Some of the benefits of play include developing trust, empathy, optimism, flexibility, attunement, three-dimensional thinking, perseverance, emotional regulation and resilience, imagination, openness to receiving inspired “aha” moments and problem-solving skills.

The Importance of Play for Problem Solving

Speaking of problem-solving skills, Nate Johnson, who taught auto mechanics at a high school in Long Beach, California, noticed that many of his students couldn’t solve problems or fix cars.

After observing this behavior and having discussions with his students, he concluded that those students who couldn’t solve problems had not worked with their hands or fixed things when they were younger.

Johnson recently teamed up with neurologist Frank Wilson to consult with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. If the lab is looking for a research and development problem solver, they will pass up summa cum laude Harvard or Cal Tech graduates if they didn’t work with their hands early in their lives.

Why Is Play Important for Us Now?

All the research has shown that lack of play when children are young can have a dramatic and negative impact on their future development, but why should we include play in our life now?

According to Dr. Brown, the research is clear on this front as well: lack of play makes us more vulnerable to depression, anxiety and impulsivity even in the years past 60.

And the benefits of play are many: the ability to be more optimistic, flexible, resilient, and open to receiving inspired “aha” moments and problem-solving skills.

So, whether we throw a tennis ball for our dog, invest in a coloring book and some crayons, or get lost in a creative project, we’re continuing to help our brains and our bodies as the years go by.

As Dr. Brown has said, “Our heritage as humans is to play. We are built to play and built by play.”

What are the first, joyful images you have of yourself playing? Are you able to have moments of play in your life now? If so, what kinds of “play” do you enjoy? Please share with our community!

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