The Science of Play

Play is our brain’s favorite way of learning.

Diane Ackerman

If you mention you’re going to play people tend to think you’re going to sign up for softball, push a kid on a playground swing, or join in a shuffleboard match.  We’re so serious we exercise like it’s a board meeting–no smiles, no silliness allowed. Yet there is a science that backs play. Play is practice for dealing with the future or the unexpected and teaches us how to adapt  (like a kid playing house, or fake battles) Play allows us to explore possibilities without committing to just one.  Play frees our brain. You can’t be in full play mode and worry, plot, or analyze. Play absorbs the body and the mind.

As I mentioned in my previous blog, play is my word of the year. I’m studying play but more importantly, I’m playing. You can’t (0r shouldn’t) be too serious about play. It would defeat the purpose. I’m also collecting play items: balls, kaleidoscopes, bubble paraphernalia, kazoos, silly hats–figuring out what attracts me and how exactly I like to play. My plan is to then draw a correlation between the way I play and the way I create. I guess I’m my own lab rat. I want to see if I can increase my creativity, my joy, my health and outlook by play–but I don’t want it to be that linear. I don’t want demand play to perform for me like a trained elephant that has no choice but to join my circus.

All of us have a history of play. How we play, who we play with, what we consider the best kind of play, what play doesn’t interest us, whether we’re “team” players or would rather putz and play on our own. Some of us play by building, others by imagining/role play. How we played as a child greatly determines how we play as an adult. Our bodies hold memories of play.

Dr. Stuart Brown,  co-author of  Play — How it Shapes Our Brains, Opens the Imagination, and Shapes the Soul, is also the  founder of the National Institute for Play  explains the science behind play:

“The evidence is broad. It starts objectively by watching animals at play and seeing what it does for them — it improves their performance, immune system, their capacity to remember things. And if you follow that through to a human system, those same benefits appear to us — particularly in fertile imagination, in a sense of optimism, in capacity to persevere and to do things that you enjoy — are all by-products of play. And if you then hook someone up to a brain imaging machine you’ll find out that when they’re at play, the brain lights up more from that than virtually anything else they can do.”

When it comes to being (and staying) a creative person, whether your creativity is expressed in writing, visual art, the performing arts, inventions, or even in the sciences, society isn’t likely to encourage you to play at work. You have to know and believe how crucial play is for yourself. You have to carve out (and guard) your play time. You have to incorporate an element of play into your work. That means to stop analyzing and start exploring. That means to figure out how you get into the flow where you brain and body are on the same wave length (literally). That means imagining, saying “what if,” turning your idea inside out and upside down. That means going for a walk, or a skip, or turning on some music and dancing, even at the office. That means honoring that play is ironically, serious and necessary “work” and crucial to your process.

When I’m writing I often have to stop and go for a walk. I take my characters with me. I talk in their voice (out loud). I argue with them, ask them what they’d never do and then I make them do it (the human contradiction), I play with my basket of balls (some spiky, some gushy) while I’m bouncing on my exercise ball. There’s something about all that roundness that makes me think. And sometimes I take a nap. Play is exhausting and often asks for its complement: rest. Some problems can only be solved by the subconscious. by not forcing the solution.

How do you play?

Does play spark your creative process?


Think back at ages 4-6–what did you like to play? (include organized sports, what you played with your siblings or parents, what you played alone, classes and free play)

Ages 7-10?

Ages 11-14?

Ages 15-20?

How have you played as an adult? (Classes, workouts, free-time, etc.)

Name those who have been your best play buddies (throughout all the time periods).

Fill in this blanks:  If I had all the time and money in the world I’d play by _______________.

The most playful person I know today is ___________________.

I play the longest when I’m ___________.

I’ve never sculpted a bust before, so the only way I know how to enter new territory is play–commit to nothing. Explore, ditch, and start again.


Filed under art, creativity, writing

6 responses to “The Science of Play

  1. When I did research for on the theory of play for an education class, I found Brian Sutton-Smith to be most helpful with understanding the psychology of play.

  2. Love this article…music is play also….just listening to it makes me want to dance!

  3. I view play as my simmering time, time to let my creative juices fly, get lost in what I’m doing and just be… It is meditative for me. As an adult we often have to give ourselves permission to play, kids do it much more spontaneously than us.

  4. so glad i found your blog via a posting of this entry on the Facebook page of another blog i follow. this entry and the one of your word of the year were so beautifully crafted, thoughtful and provocative. what you wrote resonated with me on many levels: as an early childhood practitioner; reggio approach-inspired educator; studio teacher; play advocate (i just reposted your blog on the Facebook page of the Bay Area Coalition for Play); daughter who lost her beloved father nearly three years ago; wanna-be writer; creative thinker; consumate thrifter and beginning upcycler; and not so consumate blogger (www.provocations4ece.; thank you for sharing your thoughts and your journey.

  5. Pingback: Research and Articles « Little Folks Music

  6. Pingback: Research and Articles « Music for Little Folks

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