For kids, the importance of play is undeniable. It strengthens connections between brain cells, allows them to experiment, to test theories, develop self-regulation, and learn social skills like empathy. Play is also the birthplace of creativity — where kids sprout new ideas. The more they play, the more advanced they become in other domains — for example, research shows that children who are more advanced in their play around 1 year of age are more advanced in one or more aspects of language around age two. Meanwhile, play deprivation slows mental growth in all these realms and poses a serious health risk.
All this is well known to moms and dads. But here’s a point we’ve missed: human beings are actually meant to play not just in childhood, but throughout the lifespan. Not necessarily with LEGOs and pretend kitchens, but playing into old age is part of our genetic make-up.
Recently I got to hear a talk by Dr. Stuart Brown, leading expert in the science of play. In his work over several decades, he’s found that a lack of play in adulthood leads many grown-ups to develop mental health problems. He argues that play shouldn’t be seen as an indulgence, but as part of healthy hygiene, like good eating and sleeping.
Any adult who is deprived of play for 6 months, Brown notes as a rule of thumb, will start to become pessimistic.
“The opposite of play is not work,” says Brown. “The opposite of play, is depression.”
Playing is essential to humans. Wolves or chimps get more serious as they age, but human beings are “neotenous” – we maintain playful, juvenile characteristics throughout life. In fact, there is a correlation between brain size and playfulness in different types of mammals: Species with larger brains proportional to body size play more, and those with smaller brains play less. Active play stimulates chemicals involved in nerve growth in the amygdala (where emotion is processed) and in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (where attention and advanced thinking are housed). That’s true whether you’re a 2-year-old baking a make believe chocolate cake, or a 40-year-old revisiting a sport you played high school.
A lack of play can have serious consequences. Brown has studied large populations of violent criminals and found their childhoods were distinctly devoid of play — in fact, play deprivation was as important as any other factor in predicting their crimes. In the reverse, for kids at high risk for developing antisocial behavior, that risk is significantly lowered through play therapy. Brown believes that in play we develop empathy. If we don’t play we become rigid and can’t work through interpersonal conflicts.
The power of play is clear. “Playing is part of our biological imperative,” said Brown. “It’s the fundamental design of being human.” Instead of seeing it as wasteful or even as time off, we should make play a priority. And not just for kids, but for the whole family.