Play = Happiness

Maybe it’s because we’ve had too much winter, or maybe it’s because I’ve been working too hard but the truth is, like a lot of others these days, I’m running on empty.

This realization struck me especially hard this week when I came across a new book called “Play” by Dr. Stuart Brown.

Considered by some to be a groundbreaking book on the science of play, it discusses the essential role of play in contributing not only to our happiness but also to our intelligence.

Having worked or volunteered in the field of recreation and leisure services for many years, I’ve witnessed first hand the joy of children at play. As a result, the importance of play isn’t anything new to me or anyone else who’s worked with kids.

What was new to me was the wistfulness I felt glancing through that book, and the recognition that I yearn to play.

The problem is that I’m not sure I remember how.

It’s sad, but like so many adults, I’ve gradually evolved to the point where I see play as a guilty pleasure that distracts me from life and from real work. Like many boomers I was taught to grow up, get to work, and act my age.

While we often see play as purposeless and all-consuming, according to Dr. Stuart Brown, play is anything but trivial. He suggests it is a biological drive for both children and adults that is as essential to our health as food and sleep.

He also claims that our ability to play throughout life is the single most factor in determining our success and happiness.

Backed by years of research, Play explains why play is essential to our social skills, adaptability, intelligence, creativity, ability to problem solve, and more.

Play helps us become resilient, smart, and adaptable.

Not only is it essential for child development, new research is demonstrating the transformative power of play and its positive impact on our innovation and productivity. It has now evident that play can actually impact our brains by firing up our cerebellum – the part our brain that helps integrate sensory perception, motor control, and coordination.

Nor is play as simple as we may think it to be as there are different types of play.  For instance Body Play such as jumping and wiggling is important for its own sake. In fact, it’s not play if the purpose is more important than the play itself. Object Play links our brain and our hands because it requires using our hands to manipulate objects, such as throwing snowballs. One study shows engineers are much more effective if they have experienced hands-on tinkering growing up.

Play can be Social Play to help learn how to belong, chaotic Rough and Tumble Play that helps with our cognitive and social skills, Spectator or Ritual Play, or solo Imaginative Play.

Curiosity and exploration are also part of play and therefore essential to our learning and growth.

In his book, Brown also demonstrates the importance of play to our relationships by illustrating that signals of trust among individuals are often first manifested in a form of play. Additionally the stories that shape each of us are often grounded in play. In fact, he advises that those seeking to find their life passion should look for them within their respective childhood play.

So what does all of this mean? It means that even if we have to plan for play, as I’m learning I have to do, we need to make it a priority in our lives. After all, as Brown points out, many think the word that means the opposite of play is work. It isn’t. The opposite of play is depression.

Posted on 03-21-09

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