Our Brains and Bodies Benefit from Playing

Play Makes You Smarter, Kinder and Braver, and is important for the generation of well-being.

The replacement of physical play with technological gadgetry has many experts worried, as research shows playing makes people smarter, braver and kinder.

Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play, a nonprofit corporation is “committed to bringing the unrealized knowledge, practices and benefits of play into public life.”

As noted by Dr. Brown, play is hardwired into most animals, and even has a language of its own. When dogs play you will see a lot of play bows, paw slapping, tail wagging and so on. All of these are part of dogs’ play language.

Importantly, animals will instinctively keep the play going without 1 taking over and dominating the other. There is a distinct give and take in the interaction. It is also infectious, as it draws other participants in and encourages social interactions.


The Big Q: What is play? Gordon Burghardt, a reptile has come up with 5 criteria of play.

The Big A: As explained in “The Power of Play,” to qualify as play, the behavior must:

  1. Be done for no apparent reason
  2. Be done repetitively
  3. Sometimes in an exaggerated way
  4. Be spontaneous
  5. Be done when relaxed and not stressed

Dr. Burghardt came up with these criteria after learning about the importance of play and realizing that even reptiles exhibit play behavior. Fish, another animal you wouldn’t necessarily think of as playful, also enjoy it and demonstrate these play behaviors.

Researchers are surprised by how common play is in the animal kingdom, and how it has the ability to bridge the gap between wildly differing species.

A Key example featured in the video is the playful game that spontaneously developed between a giant Pacific octopus and a zoo handler.

While we do not yet fully understand how, it is clear that play allows us to communicate on a deep, nonverbal level with a whole range of life, not just our own species. “The impulse to have fun seems to cross all sorts of boundaries in the animal kingdom,” the narrator says.

Evidence of this continues to grow, as people film and share interspecies interactions on YouTube and social media. Seals and dogs, kangaroos and deer, cats and squirrels, elephants and birds, the examples of interspecies play go on and on.

The Power of Play‘ also features Elisabetta Palagi, a primatologist at the University of Pisa, Italy, who studies the play of bonobos. As 1 of our closest primate relatives, bonobos “can give us a lot of information about the development of our behavior,” she says.

Interestingly, bonobos are known not just for their playfulness but also their peacefulness. They do not kill each other. When two groups of chimpanzees meet, they will fight to establish supremacy. When bonobos meet, they play.

According to Dr. Palagi, play allows the bonobos to establish strong interpersonal bonds, and these bonds increase everyone’s chances of survival. She also points out that play is important for the development of social skills, and this is true both for monkey and humans.

A major part of being able to interact peacefully within a social group is the ability to perceive and interpret the emotional states of others, and play allows youngsters to build and perfect this important skill set.

The Purpose of Play: Canadian research also provides significant clues about the purpose of play. As shown in the video, young domesticated rats will playfully attack each other, trying to get to the opponent’s neck. The opponent will roll and wrestle free.

As in all play, the animals take turns during this mock-attack, rough-and-tumble play.

In 1 experiment led by behavioral neuroscientist Sergio Pellis, juvenile rats were removed from other juveniles and raised with adult rats only, which are not prone to playing. What they discovered is that play-deprived rats fail to develop normal social skills.

At the end of the experiment, the brains of the play-deprived rats were also examined, revealing underdevelopment in the part of the brain responsible for impulse control and decision making.

In other words, play actually alters the prefrontal cortex of the brain.

Compared to rats that played, the play-deprived ones also had disorganized neuronal growth and irregular neuronal cells. It was the biggest breakthrough of Dr. Pellis’ career, but it also caused him serious worry.

If rat brains are unfavorably altered by lack of physical play, then what is happening to the children of our day?

“My concern is that denying young children to engage in play has led them to not getting the kinds of experiences that actually prepare them to live effectively in an unpredictable world,” Dr. Pellis says.

He cites research showing that as childhood play has declined, rates of depression and psychopathology have increased. Dr. Pellis’ groundbreaking work is now being expanded on by University of Tennessee researcher Matthew Cooper, a behavioral neuroscientist, who is investigating the connection between childhood play and the “ability to deal with life’s hard knocks.”

The prefrontal cortex plays an important role in our ability to deal with and bounce back from stress. Dr. Cooper works with juvenile Siberian hamsters, which instinctively engage in mock-attack play. Adult hamsters prefer solitude, and putting two of them together typically results in vicious fighting.

The loser suffers what is referred to as “social defeat.” Normal hamsters, meaning those who have grown up play-fighting, will shrug it off and recover rather quickly. When faced with another opponent, it will fight to win again.

Play-deprived hamsters, on the other hand, are far less resilient. After losing one fight, the play-deprived hamster simply submits when faced with another opponent. They act fearful and run away rather than defending their turf, which is suggestive of social anxiety.

“Whether it’s in the animal world or in the school yard, play helps us prepare to cope with life’s ups and downs,” the narrator says. “But the way children play has changed dramatically. A generation ago, it did not take much to have fun. A piece of rope. A few twigs.

Children in the United States now spend less time outdoors than any previous generation, only four to 7 mins a day of outdoor play, Vs 7.5 hours a day in front of a screen. And they are missing out on a lot more than just fresh air and exercise.”

Dr. Brown understood the importance of play long before there was science to back up his suspicions. In the past, it was considered unimportant and unnecessary, and if children could be doing something else, they should. We are now starting to realize the true importance of play, and the ramifications of play-deprivation.

Having investigated the play background of 6,000 individuals, Brown has shown that having fun is indeed a serious matter. “What you find is that it’s necessary for a sense of optimism and fulfillment,” Dr. Brown says, “for a sense of competency, for a sense of authentic self.”

Play is important for the generation of well-being. Like Dr. Pellis, Brown is extremely concerned about the dramatic drop-off in play. He believes the lack of play we see in today’s children is a real crisis, and is at the heart of the shocking rise in mental health problems and behavioral problems among our youth.

Another remarkable and paradoxical scientific finding is that engaging in risk during childhood is a crucial factor of preventing injuries.

As noted by Mariana Brussoni, a developmental psychologist at UBC/BC Children’s Hospital, by engaging in risky play, children learn how their bodies work, they discover what they are comfortable with and what they are not, and they learn their own limits and how the world works.

In short, “they are learning crucial risk-management skills,” Dr. Brussoni says.

Far from keeping your kids safe, discouraging them from outdoor play can actually backfire, as play-deprived children fail to gain this fundamental knowledge, which places them at greater risk for serious injury, and phobias.

A child that has never experienced climbing is far more likely to develop a fear of heights than a child who has explored and has gotten used to the “fear-fun” of heights.

The research strongly shows that risky play or play where there is a chance of injury and where the paths and outcomes aren’t certain is important for character-building, emotional resilience and self-development. The sense of freedom that outdoor play brings also encourages creativity.

Dr Brussoni encourages parents to weigh the possibility of an unlikely event Vs the very real impact that outdoor play-deprivation has on your child’s long-term mental and physical health and development.

Dr. Brussoni’s research also shows that children, especially girls, are far more likely to play outdoors when unsupervised. What this tells us is that having a sense of independence and self-determination encourages the willingness to be playful, and indeed, the opposite is precisely what feeds depression and anxiety.

As noted in “The Power of Play,” outdoor play began diminishing in the 1980’s, and those born around that time are now entering parenthood without the many fond memories of rough-and-tumble, sometimes risky peer play that their own parents grew up with.

As a result, they are less likely to understand the value of outdoor play, and less likely to encourage it. The end result could be that we are entering a sort of amnesia, where people simply cannot remember what it is like to play in the woods or climb trees, because they are never done it.

And, far from being a loss of simple fun, this can have serious consequences for the health of future children, as it actually prevents the normal brain development necessary for empathy, compassion and personal well-being.

The answer is self-evident: Encourage your kids to play, especially outdoors, and play more yourself too, regardless of your age.

Eat healthy, Be healthy, Live lively

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