Start Goofing Around: Play by Stuart Brown
Reviewed by Brian Remer
When I saw the one-word title of Stuart Brown’s book, Play, at the book store, I had to pick it up. And when I read the subtitle, “How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul,” I simply had to buy it. With stories and research from biology, psychology, and zoology, Brown’s book explains why we played so much as kids – and why we need to play just as much as adults.
Sure, you’ve probably heard that, through play, children rehearse adult roles. But did you know that both play and sleep perform the same role in enabling our brains to organize thoughts and memories? That play is the best way to sustain a long-term romantic relationship? Or that the majority of people convicted of murder grew up with a play deficit? The author uses facts like these to effectively argue the importance of play in human development and everyday life.
Brown avoids an absolute definition of play, preferring, instead, a set of broader characteristics. For him, play is an activity that is . . .
- Apparently purposeless (having no survival value; done for its own sake)
- Voluntary (not required in any way)
- Inherently attractive (it’s fun; makes you feel good)
- Freedom from time (we lose a sense of time’s passing)
- Diminished consciousness of self (being in the moment; not worrying about yourself)
- Improvisational potential (lack of rigidity; openness to serendipity)
- Continuation desire (preference to keep the activity going)
With this framework, Brown discusses the merits of organized and unorganized play, sports, and video-based games. He also talks about whether there’s ever a downside to play. Through his explanations, Brown reveals the promise of play for fostering creativity, solving problems, reforming education, healing relationships, and helping us lead more fulfilling lives.
Quite a lot of value for what we’ve been taught is “just goofing around!”
“Are we having fun yet?”
That’s a question we’ve all heard – or offered – as droll humor in a dull moment. But after reading Stuart Brown’s book Play, I’m now likely to answer, “Yes, we’re having fun – if you choose to!”
One key concept Brown clarifies is that play is less an activity and more a state of mind. Any game that turns mean-spirited, or overly aggressive is no longer play. Instead, it has turned into violence of one form or another. With a negative intent, play can be corrupted.
But turnabout is fair play, as they say. So any activity, no matter how serious or inane, can become play with a positive intent. Inject drudge work with humor, spontaneity, and imagination, and a sense of play is born. What was once lethal is now lively.
A big part of play is also imaginary. We slip into a role when we are “it” or when we “go directly to jail without passing GO!” We suspend beliefs and assumptions to create an environment where we can play, practice, and try on a new persona. We can be silly and outrageous if we wish or we can imagine ourselves as a professional. If we aren’t “having fun yet,” perhaps we can pretend to be having fun – at least until fun becomes a reality!
One of my friends who grew up with alcoholic parents said she learned early that the one thing she could control during her chaotic childhood was her own attitude. If that’s true, why not choose a playful attitude and turn any moment into “having fun now” instead of waiting for “having fun yet?”
Go Play – Right Now!
Stuart Brown is up front in saying that what different people call play is highly individualized. Each of us finds different activities that are fun or intrinsically rewarding. So I won’t tell you what to do when you go play. There are just too many possibilities.
Instead, I’d like to challenge you to experiment with Brown’s concept of play. Look again at his seven play characteristics. Choose three of them then go do something that will give you a sense of those play elements.
What would it be like to make a conscious decision (voluntary) to use your valuable time (freedom from time) doing something that you know is (apparently) purposeless? What will you choose to do that’s fun, opens you to surprises, and that you’ll want to do again and again?
Will you choose something tried and true or totally novel? Will you set up a break in your busy schedule or will you jump up from your computer right now? Will your activity be physical or cerebral; indoor or fresh air; with others or solitary?
Whatever your choice, be intentional and be observant. How does what you chose fit with who you are and how you want to be? What makes something fun for you and how can you incorporate that essence into more of your work, relationships, and everyday living?
Stewart Brown is founder of The National Institute for Play, http://www.nifplay.org/, and author of Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, Penguin Group, New York, © 2009, ISBN 978-1-58333-333-4.
Reprinted from the June 2009 issue of the Firefly News Flash by Brian Remer and used by permission.