“In a world continuously presenting challenges and ambiguity, play prepares them for an evolving planet.”
– Bob Fagan, on why bears play
Last night, after a particularly frustrating day of wanting to write, but with no words at all forming on the page, I went to the gym. Some people go to the gym and really look forward to it. Unfortunately, I am not currently one of those people.
So, I scuttled on over to Adrenaline last night at the last possible moment (8 pm) after telling myself I was only allowed to listen to a recent NPR podcast if I were walking briskly on the treadmill. (I know – this shows what a nerd I really am. Most normal people listen to hip-hop at the gym. I listen to NPR.)
My mother-in-law told me about a recent episode on Krista Tippett’s Speaking of Faith program in which Tippett interviewed Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play. Brown has observed animals in the wild at play, dogs at play, kids and grownups at play. He has also studied convicted killers who all have one very striking thing in common: as children they were not given the opportunity to play. He talks about making eye contact with kids at play and letting them learn empathy through sometimes scary-looking wrestling and rough-housing. He is a proponent of skinned knees and daring. But these lessons are not just for kids, says Brown: he gives himself a couple of hours every day committed to his own favorite past-times: reading, playing with grandchildren, letting his imagination roam. Some of his adult patients have re-learned how to play by learning how to play musical instruments, taking dance lessons, fencing lessons, or diving in to visual art.
To hear Stuart Brown speak of these things is to reconsider life and culture in America. We as a people, especially in these difficult times, are driven to exhaustion by work: thoughts about our work, analysis of other people’s work (think of all the energy we spend on G.W. Bush’s job …), considered safeguards for our kids bodies so they will continue to work, etc. We give ourselves a hard time for taking too much vacation, or for lingering a little too long by the water cooler. On a day spent “writing” (unproductively), I begrudged the 45 minutes (or was it longer?) I spent checking personal email, chiding my playful, friend-loving self for wasted time, for not being serious enough. You get the picture.
But Dr. Brown contends we are funding cheap thrills will all this work, trading that which is truer and more eternal for material happinesses and the satisfaction of doing what we feel we “should” do. The benefits of play abound. His research has found that playful people cope with stress better than non-players; their brains are better developed and their overall adaptability, character, and decision-making skills are more sound.
I left the gym feeling like a new person, and not because I’d paid my penance there. To think of play in this stage of life as something that is not just permissible but prescriptive is a truly amazing thing. I drove straight home and chased Ivy around the house. Today, I gave myself a reading break (for fiction, no less!) in the middle of my work day. On Saturday, I’ve got plans to go to the Annie Liebowitz exhibit all by myself – and all of this because of Stuart Brown. (I had a great writing day – by the way – thanks to the guiltless break.)
I hope Stuart Brown starts a revolution. What a wonderful thing it would be if we could start solving cultural and religious differences on playgrounds instead of battlefields, or if people stuffed into office cubes insisted, for their mental and emotional health, on making for themselves weekly or daily play dates, doing only what they themselves want to do, not anyone else.
If you need a more persuasive argument for why being playful is such a valuable thing, go to http://www.nifplay.org. There’s a link on their website that will lead you to the NPR page where you can download Tippett’s free podcast.