Play; How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul – Book Review

Play; How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul
By Stuart Brown, M.D. with Christopher Vaughan
Published by Avery, a member of Penguin Group Inc.; New York, New York; 2010

Take a moment to “consider what the world would be like without play. It’s not just an absence of games or sports. Life without play is a life without books, without movies, art, music, jokes, dramatic stories. Imagine a world with no flirting, no daydreaming, no comedy, no irony.”

When we try to imagine this possibility, we begin to understand how much play is integrated into our lives. We also start to think about its significance and the importance of fostering its existence.

Play; How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul was released last month. Play was written by Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute of Play in California. A medical doctor, psychiatrist and clinical researcher, Brown has dedicated his life to the study of play.

While many people think of the subject of ‘play’ as a topic reserved for children, Brown carefully crafts this book to expand the subject. We play, says Brown, because of a biological drive – it is necessary for our survival. He explains how play is both vital to humans from an evolutionary biological perspective and a philosophical standpoint. But don’t let the academic lingo deter you. Play is written in an accessible way by outlining the academic research and combining it with relatable stories.

Parents will be interested to read about the role of play in their child’s development. Brown warns against imposing adult-like schedules or restrictions on children’s play. Childhood is where play is of utmost importance. It is a time where the foundations of play – experiencing a joy of life – are laid. Preventing children from experiencing this joy – let’s say, focusing on winning the soccer game versus an emphasis on being out in the sun with friends to kick a ball around – has a distinct effect on how children learn to perceive the world and live within it. “The self that emerges through play is the core, authentic self.” Children need to have opportunity to create their own play without adult interference.

Parents of teenagers will also be interested to learn about the role of play in adolescence, a time that the Greeks called ‘sophomore’ and which Brown reveals means ‘wise-foolish’. He writes about how teens cope with a whole new growth in brain development. Encouraging play at this age is vital. Through play, teens develop healthy neurological patterns and engage in activities that will “contribute to long-term life-satisfaction.” Again, Brown warns against parents who focus on adult ideas with their teenagers. For example, too much of an emphasis on career planning and entrance to university can limit a teenager’s opportunity to pursue their own interests. Brown explains that an overly rigid pursuit of goals can inhibit growth. He encourages not five or 10 year plans, but nurturing openness to emotional interests then following those leads.

Whether you are a parent or not, Play will inspire any reader to think about how they can play more in their lives. Brown includes a chapter titled, ‘the opposite of play is not work.’ He reminds us that work can also be play, as long as it brings us joy. He writes about the inherent need in all of us for variety and challenge. When we have that in our lives, our work can be play.

Brown also takes a look at the role of play in relationships. He cites a study done by Arthur Aron of State University of New York. Aron examined the role of play in couples. He concluded that play helps people maintain balance in their relationships. A little risk or novelty in play as a couple goes a long way to bringing two people closer together. Making time to try out new things together – to play together – can help couples be happier and better endure challenges to their relationship.

Interestingly, Brown includes a chapter on what some might see as the dark side of play. He points to issues such as gambling, addiction to video games, bullying or the overly competitive player. Brown argues that if we are to acknowledge a dark side to these activities, then they are no longer considered play. Play that is domineering or compulsive is an activity under the “false flag” of play.

Play concludes with a sort of ‘how-to’ chapter. Brown warns that if we are living without joy – through our work, family or otherwise – play can be the conduit to rediscovering that joy. He emphasizes the importance of play to our world and humankind: “play is our culture, in the form of music, drama, novels, dances, celebrations, and festivals. Play shows us our common humanity. In shows us how we can be free within societal structures that allow us to live with others. It is the genesis of innovation, and allows us to deal with an ever-changing world.”

While Brown’s first-person approach felt paternalistic at times, it didn’t over-shadow the value of the content. I did find Play markedly American in its cultural references and sports analogies. But if readers can look past the American orientation, this book will undoubtedly motivate readers to think differently about the topic of play. Play will inspire readers to seek out play in their own lives and develop a belief that play should be elevated as an activity that is more than just a frivolous pursuit.

Play is a wonderful introduction to an interdisciplinary academic topic that is embedded in all lives. The book builds a case for understanding the role of play in the evolution of humans, as an aid to building cohesive communities, and as a tool to finding joy in one’s own life. We all need play in order to lead a ‘good life;’ “play is what allows us to attain a higher level of existence, new levels of mastery, imagination, and culture.” Play will help readers reflect on what the ‘good life’ means to them and how to live it.


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