The Importance of Play




     Anyone who has any experience with children can see the intrinsic value of jumping, climbing, and make-believe.  I think we can all agree: play is important. The benefits range from physical fitness to socialization, and it is generally accepted as common knowledge that children need to play.  Yet, somewhere along the way, many of us come to feel that we have finished playing.  We have a tendency to view ourselves, as adults, as finished products.  We’re done with growing and changing.  We’re ready to get to work.

     We come to see “play-time” as some kind of scarce luxury, something that happens when the rare combination of money and free time magically appear in our lives. It is certainly not something most of us are scheduling. The internet is full of articles and essays claiming the American public is overworked and overstressed, but you can find just as many studies debunking this theory.  Statistically, Americans fall in what should be a happy medium between work-time and allotted play time.  What seems to be consistent over these articles, however, is the assertion that, while the typical American might be granted a sufficient number of vacation days, we are not using them.  Studies show that employees who take advantage of their vacation time are more productive, often feeling rejuvenated by the break.  

     So where is the disconnect?  Why are we not clocking out? 

     There are so many reasons why we can’t take the time off, from fear for our job security to concern for the co-workers who will have to shoulder the burden of work in our absence.  We feel that putting in the long hours is noble.  It shows to others that we are persistent, committed, and willing to make sacrifices.  We can hear that we are increasing our risk for stroke and heart disease by not taking time for ourselves, but we are willing to sacrifice our own physical health for what we perceive to be a “greater good.”  There is a chance our refusal to play is affecting more than just our wellbeing, that the consequences of our die hard work ethic reach beyond our own mind and body, affecting society at large.


     The National Institute of Play is a non-profit corporation founded by Dr. Stuart Brown.  Brown is a psychiatrist and clinical researcher who began studying the link between play deprivation and homicidal tendencies in the wake of the mass shooting at the University of Texas in Austin by Charles Whitman, the “Texas Tower Sniper.”  While there were many other known and unknown factors in the case of Charles Whitman, such as emotional and physical abuse by a parent and an undiagnosed brain tumor that is believed to have played a role in his violent behavior, Brown points to the common theme of play deprivation in the profiles of gunman from the many recent mass shootings that have plagued our country.  He suggests a link between antisocial and depressive behaviors and the deprivation of play.  His theory is based on the findings of several animal studies and his decades of case studies of violent offenders.


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     Has kicking “play” to the bottom of our list of priorities resulted in a nation of disheartened, antisocial and apathetic adults with diminished drive and an impaired ability to cooperate?  The next time you find yourself reading the news and wondering what’s wrong with the world today, consider the possibility that one of the biggest problems might just be taking ourselves too seriously. 


     Doctor of Child Psychiatry, Dr. Rachel White, compiled a summary of research on behalf of the Minnesota Children’s Museum which covers the different kinds of play, guidelines for recognizing play, and the known benefits playful learning.


     "When children have the chance to direct their own learning through play, they are able to address their own immediate and developmental needs and find activities that are most conducive to their individual learning styles.”

(Dr. Rachel White,


     Role-playing and creating narratives build a child’s capacity for empathy.  This becomes the foundation for close, interpersonal relationships later in life.  Without the bedrock of empathy, we cannot build stable friendships.  Role-playing also provides children a healthy way to cope with stress and process new information.  The lack of this type of play in early childhood may result in debilitating social adjustment issues in adult life and has been shown to impair development of the prefrontal cortex in social animals.


     What does this mean for play in the lives of human adults? We may not need to physically act out anxiety-inspiring scenarios when we’re older simply because we are better at visualizing and mentally rehearsing events, but we still need play in our lives.  “Though early play may have been their heritage, the consequences of adult play deprivation are: lack of vital life engagement; diminished optimism; stuck-in-a-rut feeling about life with little curiosity or exploratory imagination to alter their situation; predilection to escapist temporary fixes…alcohol, excessive exercise, (or other compulsions); a personal sense of being life’s victim rather than life’s conqueror.” (Dr. Stuart Brown)

     While childhood play-learning teaches us how to live, play in adulthood may serve to remind us of why we want to live.

     The Children’s Museum article described one study in which children had to retrieve an out of reach object using two short sticks.  They would only succeed if they attached the two short sticks together to form a longer stick.  The children who were allowed to play with the sticks prior to the experiment were better at coming up with the solution.

     "Although children in a third group who observed an adult model the solution also correctly solved the problem more often than the control group, they were not as motivated or persistent in their problem solving as children in the play group. They often gave up if they failed to immediately solve the problem, whereas children in the play group were more likely to keep trying new strategies until they solved the problem.” (Dr. Rachel White)  


     Learning the answer and finding the answer are not equal.  Engagement means we care when we find the right answer.  Having the information fed to us and then following instructions leaves us disengaged, with little emotional investment in the actions we are performing.  Which is a pretty scary thought when you extrapolate that sentiment to life in general.  Fulfilling societal expectations and duties without finding our own path leaves us disenchanted and disconnected to the product of our efforts; the product, in this case, being our lives. 


What does playing even look like as an adult?  Dr. Rachel White compiled a list of characteristics that define the act of play. 

  1. PLAY IS PLEASURABLE. If you're not enjoying the activity, it isn't play. 

  2. PLAY IS INTRINSICALLY MOTIVATED, meaning you're engaged in play simply for the satisfaction it brings, not for any end goal. 

  3. PLAY IS PROCESS ORIENTED. When we play, the means must be more important than the ends. 

  4. PLAY IS FREELY CHOSEN. It is spontaneous and voluntary. 

  5. PLAY IS ACTIVELY ENGAGED. Players must be physically and/or mentally involved in the activity. 

  6. PLAY IS NON-LITERAL. It involves make-believe.

     Play should stem from our own desire, with no constructive goal, no end-game. We may not think adults “make believe,” but we do this anytime we read a book, watch a television show, or play a video game.  Good play incorporates as many physical tasks as possible and should involve something novel. As children, everything was new. Everything was slightly uncomfortable and that was the entirety of our young lives, learning how to cope. As adults, we have the luxury of avoiding all sorts of anxiety.  We get to adopt routines and skirt situations we don’t know how to handle but, in that comfort, we lose a very important part of the human experience. After childhood, play is not inevitable; it is a choice we actively have to make.  We must choose to be uncomfortable for growth to happen. This makes us stronger.

     When an entire society views play as an unnecessary and self-indulgent act, its citizens might begin to feel disenchanted or disillusioned. Individuals might feel disconnected from their world and the people around them, unable to understand others and incapable of being understood.  The empathy necessary for effective cooperation might begin to erode, and the emotional toll of such isolation and chronic apathy could begin to manifest itself in random acts of violence by frustrated people who have lost the ability to regulate their emotions.

     It might be oversimplifying the issues to pin all the world’s problems on a lack of vacations, or maybe it’s just wishful thinking.  It is very tempting to believe that we could fix everything by putting our phones down and playing soccer.  While it seems too good to be true, could it hurt to give it a try?  Be the change you wish to see in the world. Make a to-do list of things you enjoy and then cross off any practical ones.  Encourage others around you to be silly, goof around, have fun.  Engage in some nonsense.  Try something new.  Maybe fun and games are just a pleasurable way to pass the time, but then again, they might be tools to save the world.

Read Dr. Stuart Brown’s statement:

Dr. Rachel White,‪

Research on play for the Minnesota Children’s Museum

Originally appeared on the Medicine People of the World blog