child development, mental health, parenting, psychology, Uncategorized

How Play Shapes Our Brain

I recently finished reading Play How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul by Stuart Brown, M.D. This book made me want to go back into my childhood and tap into all the wonderful creative activities I used to partake in. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Play is composed of activities done for their own sake and apparently purposeless
  • It’s voluntary
  • Makes you feel good
  • Gives you freedom from time (reach a state of flow)
  • It’s flexible and it keeps us from becoming rigid
  • We want the activity to continue
  • Creativity is an extension of our urge to be playful

Dr. Brown states: “I hate to define play because it is a thing of beauty best appreciated by experiencing it. Defining play has always seemed to me like explaining a joke—analyzing it takes the joy out of it.”  No matter how you define it, or not, play serves a fundamental purpose in our wellbeing and development. Studies have shown that animals who are deprived of play can still hunt, but they cannot socialize appropriately. Animals adapt and learn from their world faster when they participate in play. Through play, nature has given us a way to help our complex brain develop. It stabilizes our bodies and our minds.

Infants play to bond and make sense of their bodies, as well as the world around them. They use rhythms and movement to connect to their caregivers and learn. Later on, play helps children develop a sense of empathy for others, and test the boundaries of relationships. Pretend play is a way to explore other lives, roles, rules and ideas.

Adults need play just like children do. Extended periods deprived of play activities lead to depression in both children and adults. As the author points out, the opposite of play is not boredom, it’s depression. Creativity is an extension of our urge to be playful.

The 8 Categories of Play Personalities:

Brown devides play personalities into 8 main categories. Which one do you fit into?

  • The Joker- fun and nonsense
  • The Kinesthetic- movement seeking
  • The Explorer- looking for physical, emotional or intellectual adventures
  • The Competitor- finds creativity and play through competition
  • The Director-loves to be in control, organizing others, planning
  • The Collector-needs to have and hold objects
  • The Artist/Creator-needs to make something out of nothing
  • The Storyteller-imaginative, weaves stories through words, performances, acting or movement

I am guessing that most people are a melange of categories. I am definitely a combination of at least five of them. 

Reviving our Ability to Play:

Some of us have become so removed from our playful selves, that we need to work deliberately at connecting with the child inside. Here are some ways adults can start bringing some fun back into their lives:

  • Participate in physical activities at least 5 times per week. Try to expend your repertoire. Sign up for something silly, or go skipping in the rain.
  • Play with animals or children outdoors.
  • Spend time remembering the activities you did as a child—write down your own play history.
  • Find activities that recreate your play patterns from childhood.
  • Keep a play journal with ideas for activities.
  • Foster your relationships— sign up to do something unexpected with your loved-ones; ballroom dancing lessons, an acting seminar, rent a tandem bike, or go on a picnic.
  • Go to the beach and look for seashells. Schedule a day exploring the mountains and look for cool rocks or fossils.
  • Draw, even if you are awful at it. Sit down, observe and draw—without judgement.
  • Do lots of art. Sign up for a class or just schedule time to sit down and create something.
  • Learn to cook or bake something new.
  • Spend ten minute each day writing a short story. It can be simple and silly. It’s for you. No one has to see it.
  • Turn any situation into a poem. Play with words.
  • Turn on music and start dancing.
  • Take up acting or improv (especially if it’s out of character for you).
  • Go to the park without your kids. Swing, go down the slide, get on the seesaw.
  • Be adventurous. Join a group of like minded individuals looking for new experiences. Community centers and Meetup are great resources.

I hope that this article will inspire you to explore your own play-muse. Dr. Brown’s book makes a strong case for deliberately including play into our daily routines, and creating a society that encourages exploration and creative outlets. Through play, we can once again find balance, creativity, joy, and purpose.


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