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The importance of play

Recreational deprivation has been linked to criminality, obesity and declining creativity. Rob Parr asks why having fun is not taken more seriously

Three young children playing outside

Source: Getty

It is unstructured play, where partners have to negotiate the rules, that is most important for the beneficial effects on the prefrontal cortex

Play is serious business. This sounds paradoxical and it is, in so much as something that comes so naturally to large-brained mammals (and birds, according to some authorities), that is so much fun, is so vital. Play is a banquet for the brain, a smorgasbord for the senses, providing nourishment for body and spirit: sad then that as a society we seem to be starving ourselves of it.

How does one define “play”? According to Patrick Bateson, emeritus professor of ethology at the University of Cambridge, “‘play’ as used by biologists and psychologists is a broad term denoting almost any activity that is not ‘serious’ or ‘work’ ”. Peter Gray, research professor at Boston College, writes that play “is self-chosen and self-directed”, an imaginative, non-literal activity “in which means are more valued than ends”, with “rules that are not dictated by physical necessity but emanate from the minds of the players”. And leading play theorist Bob Hughes, author of Evolutionary Playwork (2001), says that “the interaction we call social play enables children to discover that the rules governing any form of social interaction need to be revealed, explored and amended” via “protocols and meta-communication”.

The academic study of the subject has a distinguished lineage: Charles Darwin, G. Stanley Hall, Jean Piaget, William James, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Lev Vygotsky and Brian Sutton-Smith all aided its development. One seminal contribution was Homo Ludens (“Man the player”), the 1938 book written by Dutch historian and theorist Johan Huizinga. Huizinga emphasised play’s natural basis as a not-so-trivial pursuit: “Play is older than culture, for culture…always presupposes human society, and animals have not waited for man to teach them their playing.”

Many academics continue to find plenty of interest in this intellectual sandpit.

Take the work of Stuart Brown, founder and president of the US’ National Institute for Play and author of Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul (2009). As a researcher at Baylor College of Medicine in the 1960s, he identified play’s importance through the study of 26 young (male) murderers, beginning with Charles Whitman: in August 1966, Whitman, a 25-year-old architectural engineering student at the University of Texas at Austin, killed his wife and mother, then mounted the campus tower, shooting dead a total of 17 people and wounding more than 30 before being gunned down himself.

Brown and his colleagues expected to find a history of physical abuse in Whitman’s and the other murderers’ pasts, which they did: but they also discovered that “play deprivation and other major play abnormalities” were present in most cases. For example, Whitman’s playfulness was systematically beaten out of him (literally and figuratively) by his overbearing father. Neighbours testified that he was not allowed to play with other children. A Texas state committee, convened to investigate the university shootings, concluded that lack of play was a key factor in Whitman’s killing spree: if he had been allowed to play, it theorised, he would have been better able to cope with life’s vicissitudes without recourse to violence. (Others have hypothesised that Whitman’s glioblastoma, a type of brain tumour, helps to explain his actions.)

Brown went on to catalogue the detailed play histories of more than 6,000 people over the course of his career. He writes: “What all these studies repeatedly revealed…was that…normal play behaviour was virtually absent throughout the lives of highly violent, antisocial men, regardless of demography.” It seems that Jack Torrance’s threatening repetition of “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” in The Shining has more than pop resonance.

Brown’s work reveals that severely play-deprived children manifest multiple psychopathologies: conversely, the histories of successful, creative people show social play’s vital part in healthy development. It seems that emotional control, social competency, personal resiliency and curiosity accrue through developmentally appropriate play experiences. Other studies, such as the work of Swiss researchers Marco Hüttenmoser and Dorothee Degen-Zimmermann, have also found that play-deprived children manifest responses on a scale ranging from unhappiness to aggression.

Why is play deprivation so damaging? John Byers, professor of zoology at the University of Idaho, says that among “mammals with well-developed play, the behaviour represents a substantial energy expenditure and may involve physical risk. These two facts indicate that play most likely is involved in post-natal brain development (in mammals, a larger adult brain size requires a longer period of development), and the benefit of play must be substantial (to outweigh the energy and risk costs).”

Byers’ research over the past 40 years has also shown that in a number of mammals, “the ages at which play reaches a peak rate coincide with the ages during which there is performance-based selective elimination of synapses in the cerebellum, the part of the brain that permits sophisticated movement”. Play as brain “hygiene”?

The work of Sergio Pellis, professor of neuroscience at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, offers further neurological support for play’s significance.

“In a nutshell, research has shown that if juvenile rats fail to engage in peer-to-peer play, as adults they have deficiencies in social, cognitive and motor skills,” he says. “There is some evidence that these deficiencies may arise because of impoverished emotional regulation: consider how your motor skills or thinking are impaired when you are scared.

“The work in my laboratory has shown that peer-to-peer interactions in the juvenile period shape the connections among the neurons of parts of the prefrontal cortex that have connections to other brain circuits involved in motor, cognitive and emotional processes. Moreover, we have shown that normally reared rats with damage to the prefrontal cortex in adulthood produce some of the same deficits seen in those with intact brains reared without play experience.”

Pellis argues that “play is beneficial for developing a range of skills and at least some of them are improved by play-induced changes in the prefrontal cortex. This has important implications for human development.”

He continues: “First, the prefrontal cortex is crucial for such capacities as impulse control, and the ability to inhibit inappropriate action is critical for suitable functioning in such contexts as the schoolroom. Second, the growing absence of play experience in childhood appears to be correlated with a variety of psychiatric disturbances and loss of social skills. Third, the animal research clearly shows that it is unstructured play, where partners have to negotiate the rules and learn how to deal with infringements, that is most important for the beneficial effects on the prefrontal cortex. That is, neither non-social play on a video screen nor structured play as in organised sports provide the relevant experiences provided by the free play generated by kids themselves.”

As there is no denying the evolutionary reality of the natural world and our place in it, looking to nature for insights into human development can offer fascinating insights without recourse to sociobiology or “Just-so” stories. As Byers points out, play has costs, so the fact that it is so ubiquitous among large-brained mammals must mean it pays well, too.

Child running through fountain

Source: Getty

For example, let’s consider our moral currency. Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado Boulder, has spent a lifetime studying play among canids (dogs, wolves, coyotes, etc), including hour after painstaking hour watching videotape of animal play cues: for example, an exaggerated “bow”, where the animal crouches on its forelimbs while standing on its hind legs, solicits canid play and informs all parties that “this is just a game”.

In the wild and in domestic settings, the animals play according to the rules (putting to one side thornier questions of intentionality, or whether they may be playing according to rules they are not cognisant of). Deception is a rarity: indeed, those that do cheat are ostracised – with potentially disastrous consequences in nature. Bekoff says: “Animals, including humans, learn the rules of the game and there is strong selection for fair play because those who violate it can suffer from not being part of the group.”

Indeed, his long-term field research shows that juvenile coyotes (the “trickster” of Native American legend) generally play fair in an intra-species context: those that don’t usually end up leaving the pack – and have much poorer survival rates than those that remain.

Bekoff (in a co-written book of the same title) postulates the concept of “wild justice”, that social play may be the evolutionary foundation stone for human morality.

Academic research from a variety of disciplines demonstrates the importance of play to mind and body across mammalian species, including Homo ludens. Studies the world over also show that outdoor “free play” (in other words, not crushed under the weight of adult supervision) has the best results for children’s physical, social and intellectual growth, perhaps exemplified in urban environments by the “playscapes” offered by adventure playgrounds (there are 180 such spaces across the UK, 90 in London).

In this light, you’d think that such settings would be properly funded and protected. Wrong.

In January, Children & Young People Now magazine published the results of Freedom of Information requests sent to local authorities across the UK. The magazine writes that some 48 had closed playgrounds between April 2010 and October 2013, accounting for 145 unstaffed and 23 staffed facilities. The cuts have also caused widespread job losses among play professionals (such as those who run play settings), with 62 per cent of councils reporting that they now employ fewer full-time staff than in 2010 and 22 per cent saying that they no longer have any at all. The FoI data reveal that council spending on play fell from £67.9 million in 2010-11 to £41.5 million in 2013-14, a drop of £26.4 million: all this before austerity really sinks its teeth in.

We read much about the obesity time bomb ticking away at the heart of Western societies, and outdoor play could play a massive part in defusing it. In one of many examples, a University College London report, Making Children’s Lives More Active, published in 2004, found that outdoor, unstructured play is one of the best forms of exercise for children. Yet the scales still rise.

As the state rolls back, charities do their best to fill the breach: in the capital, London Play leads on the Street Play campaign, while the company Adventure Playground Engineers (APES) plans to create a not-for-profit arm to make up for the lack of training opportunities for would-be play workers. But the “big society” (remember that?) is not big enough.

And this is not just a physical crisis. Hughes warns that “because play has been such an important part of the behavioural repertoire of the human organism through so many evolutionary stages, we now expect to play. If we don’t we are thrown into what [Czech psychiatrist] Stanislav Grof called ‘an agonising existential crisis’ so grave that we lose all reference points, spiralling into childhood pathologies and eventually barbarism.”

Besides the link to criminality, there is also a price to pay in terms of declining creativity. In their book Play, Playfulness, Creativity and Innovation (2013), Bateson and his Cambridge colleague Paul Martin argue that playfulness facilitates originality in nature and society (so a lack of it should be particularly worrying for academics).

“Interventions that provide children with greater opportunities for play make them more creative,” Bateson says. “Conversely, fears about safety and the pressures of school curricula are reducing opportunities for free play. These trends are associated with a decline in the ability to come up with new ideas.”

Gray concurs. He points out how US scores on the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking have declined since the 1980s as teaching has become more prescriptive and play time has declined. And decline it has. As Gray recounts, sociologists at the University of Michigan assessed how US children spent their time in 1981 and in 1997. In both years, they asked a large, representative sample of parents to keep records of their children’s activities on days chosen randomly by the researchers. They found that children not only played less in 1997 than in 1981 but also had less free time for all self-chosen activities. For six- to eight-year-olds, the study identified a 25 per cent decrease in time spent playing over the 16-year period.

These changes are costing us. In his latest book, Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life (2013), Gray describes “what I think is the most dramatic effect of the play deficit: the increase in childhood depression and anxiety, and decrease in self-control…over the past half-century”. The Boston College scholar also warns that “helicopter parenting”, over-supervised play and too much testing in school have the potential to create a “world full of narcissists…a sad world indeed”.

Just as the child is father to the man, so childhood play fosters the flexibility of thought and deed, the sociability and the empathy our species will require in the trials ahead. Michael Gove, please take note: rote learning won’t turn back the floods. Children and adults need the space to mess around if we are to get out of the mess we are making for ourselves.

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