Writer and child development specialist Joseph Chilton Pearce got it right when he said, “Play is the only way the highest intelligence of humankind can unfold.” The joyful, non-literal and non-goal-directed activity of play has long been known to foster creativity, intellectual development and emotional maturity.
When children have free time to engage in non-structured, self-directed and pleasurable activities with each other, they learn to associate pleasurable emotions with social interactions and they practice the social skills necessary in life.
What happens when a child is deprived of play? In the late 1960s, a team of researchers led by Stuart Brown of the Baylor University School of Medicine studied the childhoods of 26 murderers. They expected to find childhood abuse and trauma as likely causes of anger and violence. What they found instead was play deprivation.
A dramatic example was Charles Whitman, who in 1966 climbed the clock tower at the University of Texas and systematically shot and killed 17 people and wounded 30. Family and neighbors reported that Whitman’s father brought him up in a military style, under extreme discipline, and never allowed him to play with other children. The researchers found variations on this pattern repeated in virtually all 26 killers.
It would be an oversimplification to say that lack of play opportunities is the sole cause of such violence. But professor Brown was so impressed by these findings that he pursued this line of research, founded the U.S. National Institute for Play, catalogued findings on over 6,000 violent criminals over a period of 40 years, and then, in 2009, published his book "Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul."
In some war-torn and poverty-stricken areas of the world, it is almost impossible for children to have the opportunity to play. A tragic consequence of this may be a generation of play-deprived children growing up predisposed to become violent and fanatical adults. But on the brighter side, there are many moving examples of children finding ways to play even in refugee camps where disease and starvation are rampant.
Founded in 2007, the British-based Flying Seagull Project comprised of several thousand volunteers visits refugee camps as well as hospitals and some of the world’s worst slums to bring clowning and playfulness to happiness-deprived children. These volunteers may very well be making a huge contribution to children’s lives and to the prospects of a peaceful future by engendering a spirit of playfulness and joy in such places.
But, sadly, there is reason to be concerned that milder forms of play deprivation may be taking their toll right here in our own country. What factors are contributing to a reduction in free play time? First, our ambitions for our children may be leading to an overly organized scheduling of children’s lives.
Second, safety concerns have reduced children’s ability to explore. American computer scientist, writer, educator and inventor Gever Tulley has founded The Brightworks School, a “tinkering school” in California. He describes it as a place that children love, but that some parents find a bit too risky for their taste. Tulley’s book "50 Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Children Do" has gotten some rave reviews, but also criticism from those who believe he’s crossed the line and is promoting dangerous behaviors. Nevertheless, he has a point.
The drive to play is wired into the animal kingdom. A video that recently went viral shows a huge adult bear approaching a tethered sled dog with a clear intention of having the dog for lunch. The predatory stare of a hungry animal was clearly apparent in her approach. But when the dog began to prance around playfully, the bear soon accepted the invitation and the two of them playfully roughhoused for about half an hour. This incident suggests that the need for play is so powerful that it sometimes overrides basic survival instincts.
But most animals lose much of their need for play when they become adults. Humans, however, retain a desire for playful activity throughout life. Professor Brown asserts that the opposite of play is not work, but depression.
If we are feeling play-deprived, professor Brown suggests that we revive our taste for play by remembering those play activities that we loved as children. These will be different for each of us. So take a look back and then work on finding ways to revive some elements of what gave you such joy back then and bring them into your life today.