The Importance of Play

Melanie Becker

In his lecture, “The Neuroscience of Play” (you can watch the full thing here, as well as his TED talk on the same subject), Dr. Stuart Brown contends that “the opposite of play is not work; it’s depression”. He’s right. While play is generally credited secondary importance at best, it is utterly vital to the mental well-beings of people of all ages.

What is “Play”?

The three key components of play are that it (1) is some form of mimicry or approximation of common or important behavior, (2) has no purpose but sheer enjoyment, and (3) occurs in a “non-threatening, low-duress context” (Gaskill and Perry 2014, p. 179). But while it lacks purpose by its very nature, it is anything but pointless. Dr. Brown explains that rats, highly playful creatures in the early stages of their lives, are essentially ruined by early play deprivation; they can’t figure out how to reproduce due to lack of exposure to other rats’ bodies, and they don’t know which organisms to trust. Because they can’t manage their stress levels, they often contract P.T.S.D. from stressful situations and die.

As it happens, other rat researchers have found that the instinct to play originates in the brain stem- the evolutionarily earliest part of the brain (note that our brain stems are extremely similar to those of rats)- by removing the cortices of certain rats shortly after birth and finding that they still played normally at the appropriate time. This suggests that play offers evolutionary benefit, as it is an unconscious urge that extends far back in our genealogy-  and this makes sense. Play teaches us how to appropriately interact with others (Isenberg and Jalongo, 2014) and encourages curiosity, exploration, and creativity; all absolutely necessary to our survival as individuals and as a species.

Generated impulses from the brain stem and cerebellum travel to the prefrontal cortex of the brain. There, they cause the formation of memory traces and maps- especially important in children- and assist in the development of effective contextual memory (our improved recollection of specific things better when we are in the same contexts we learned them in) (Brown, 2010).

Play Deprivation

So what happens when we don’t play? It’s clear that, due to lack of friendly contact with our peers, our social skills suffer immensely. We also often don’t develop the healthy curiosity and desire to explore, leading us to become rather fearful of the world around us. Less obviously, children deprived of play frequently suffer from deficiencies in mental map making; the stress and trauma that build up as a result of not having play can even mutate the brain on a chemical and physical level.

The extreme is thoroughly examined by Fraser Brown and Sophie Webb, who conducted a study on play deprivation on Romanian orphans living deprived lives (you can read the full study here). Before the study, these children slept tied to their cots in rooms that wreaked of urine and lived behind bars, able to see and hear other children with no social interaction. Brown and Webb observed that many of the children engaged in self-harm and were unaware of the implications of actions potentially dangerous to others. No intellectual deficiencies were found, but the children were completely dysfunctional regardless- many were found to simply lie limply when cuddled, and a young girl smiled constantly at nothing in particular (never at other children), staring at things endlessly.

After less than a year of introducing the Romanian children to play, their general functioning had improved immensely, and they were on track to becoming healthy adults. In her journal, Webb described that they “jump[ed] up and down in their cots” in excitement upon waking up each morning and cuddled with each other. Play was the only real change in their lifestyles since the arrival of Webb and Brown, yet it turned their behavior and functioning around completely; it’s no wonder that play is biologically mandated and evolutionarily grounded.

We are designed to be playful throughout our lives. When we neglect this basic need, we become apathetic, rigid, joyless, prone to addiction, workaholics, and ultimately depressed (Brown, 2010). In our society, outside playtime has decreased by 71% in just one generation (Brown, 2014), teens are encouraged to take mountains of A.P. courses and fill their free time with taxing extracurricular activities, and recess and physical education programs are being cut and replaced with more hours of study. Play deprivation is everywhere on many levels, and it is utterly detrimental.

So, the next time you feel the pressure of your demanding obligations and overwhelming schedule, remember to clear some time for fun. It will make a world of difference.

Brown, F., Webb, S (2005). Children Without Play. Retrieved from http://www.fairplayforchildren.org/pdf/1291430543.pdf

Brown, S. L. (2010). The Neuroscience of Play. Retrieved from http://www.aspenideas.org/session/neuroscience-play-what-play-does-you-and-your-brain-and-what-happens-you-if-you-dont-play

Brown, S. L. (2014). Consequences of Play Deprivation. Retrieved from http://www.scholarpedia.org/article/Consequences_of_Play_Deprivation

Gaskill, R. L., Perry B. D. (2014). The Neurobiological Power of Play. Retrieved from https://childtrauma.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Malchiodi_Perry_Gaskill.pdf

Isenberg, J. P., Jalongo, M. R. (2014, April 30). Why is Play Important? Social and Emotional Development, Physical Development, Creative Development. Retrieved from http://www.education.com/reference/article/importance-play–social-emotional/

Macrae, F. (2010). Are the Scars of Deprivation Imprinted on a Child’s Brain? Retrieved from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-1283183/Deprived-childhood-profound-effects-developing-brain.html (Image).

Edited by: Shreya Singireddy