SIMAGES 2015.2 – National Institute for Play

National Institute for Play
A Repository for Research on the Power of Play
By Linda Keller

Year after year during networking opportunities at our NASAGA Conferences, discussions turn to the same topic – how do we make learning through games or playful activities credible to our clients? WE know it works, but for many of our clients it sounds frivolous or risky. The National Institute for Play, I am delighted to report, offers us the resources, data and powerful stories to employ when we need to influence a client to use a game, simulation, or playful activity to reach a goal.

The National Institute for Play is a 501(c)(3) non-profit public benefit corporation committed to bringing the research-based knowledge, practices and benefits of play into public life.  In 1966, before founding the Institute, Stuart Brown, a doctor, psychiatrist and clinical researcher, was moved by an event that would provide early insights that play is a developmentally important human process. Following the University of Texas Tower Shooting that left 16 dead and 32 wounded, Dr. Brown was asked to study a group of homicidal young males to discover if there were any common links between these men. The common thread he found was that each led a play-deprived childhood. Brown continued to study the impact of play in childhood, interviewing thousands of people to capture their play profiles. His findings confirmed that the active presence of play was found in the very successful study participants, while those with a play-deprived life demonstrated negative outcomes.

Armed with data that supported his early findings, Brown united with scientists, and advisors from the non-profit sector, business, and professional sports, to establish the National Institute for Play with a goal of unlocking human potential through play in all stages of life.

The Institute holds that as play is woven into the fabric of social practices, we will dramatically transform our personal health, our relationships, the education we provide to our children, and the capacity of corporations to innovate.

Why is play research important to learning professionals and business leaders? The demand for workers who understand complexity is increasing exponentially. Over 75% of the U.S. work force does information work, which requires workers to collaborate with other information workers to make judgments and solve complex issues. We need engaged workers who are skillful at collaboration, problem solving and innovation. The Institute for Play holds that this becomes more possible when organizations infuse the state of play into their workers’ attitudes. They need to learn how to do the work of their organizations in a “play state.”

Play is still an emerging scientific topic. Studies of both animals and humans have helped identify patterns and states of play and explain how play shapes our brains, creates our competencies, and stabilizes our emotions. Dr. Brown categorizes specific patterns of play. Each type of play stimulates the brain in one or more regions. He begins his list with the most primal form of play.

  1. Attunement Play – When an infant smiles and the mother smiles back, the right cerebral cortex of the brain is engaged in both, their brain waves are in harmony, and mutual joy is the result. Attunement is critical for later emotional self-regulation, stress management, and decision making.
  2. Body Play & Movement – Play that is associated with body movements helps develop coordination as well as molds the brain to be more resilient and ready for the unexpected. Movement play lights up the brain and fosters learning, innovation, flexibility, adaptability and resilience.
  3. Object Play – Playing with different types of objects stimulates the brain to develop more than just manipulative skills. Lab managers have discovered that play with the hands creates a brain that is better suited for understanding and solving problems.
  4. Social Play – Some play focuses on friendship and belonging. One form of social play is the urge to be accepted. An equally important characteristic is “rough and tumble” play. It is necessary for the development of social cooperation, fairness, and altruism. Celebratory play is shown in the patterns of people gathering at parties, rock concerts, shopping malls, etc. In the workplace, celebratory events provide an “official” excuse for playing.
  5. Transformative – Integrative and Creative Play are fantasy which transcends reality. It is where we germinate new ideas, create our internal narratives, and discover new ways of doing business.

As game players and designers, data from the studies at the National Institute for Play can provide us with evidence of the neural connections that become activated when we use this type of play in our game designs. Their research can bolster our ability to convince clients that “play” is serious business. The possibilities within our field are vast and exciting. Several resources are available to learn more about the National Institute of Play.



National Institute of Play Website

Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorat… by Dr. Stuart Brown

Play is More than Just Fun  Stuart Brown’s Ted Talk

PBS Series: The Promise of Play  Stuart Brown on Public Television

A Playful Path  Book and website by Bernie De Koven.

Additional Resources:  Highlights four types of play as identified by Brian Sutton-Smith, one of the first scholars to legitimize the study of play.… “Play Makes Us Human I: A Ludic Theory of Human Nature” by Peter Gray in Psychology Today, June 4, 2009.…   Tracy Spielberger writes about the positive effects of play positively in the workplace at the website of Playworks, an organization dedicated to a more playful atmosphere for children in school.

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