Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Serious Side of Play
Lessons learned from the book: Play, by Dr. Stuart Brown

Janet Petitpas, Senior Associate, London

George Bernard Shaw said, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing,” and Dr. Stuart Brown is in full agreement. Dr. Brown’s recent book, Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, supports the idea that play is central to our being human and necessary in order to be creative, productive and happy members of our communities.

Dr. Brown is a medical doctor, psychiatrist, clinical researcher and the founder of the National Institute for Play as well as the producer of a three-part PBS series, The Promise of Play, and has appeared on NPR and in the New York Times Magazine.

In the book, Dr. Brown highlights play through biological evolution and gives examples of how play makes the brain more adaptable and smarter. He also give examples of how fun, purposeful play is important in developing social and emotional intelligences in addition to sharpening skills needed for everyday survival even in animals. He gives evidence of the correlation between brain size and the amount of play in different animals and play seems to be one of the most advanced methods nature has invented to allow a complex brain to create itself.

One of the most compelling stories in the book is that of the hiring managers at the jet propulsion labs in California. As their top engineers were retiring they were hiring young hot-shots who had done well in the best engineering programs, but found that many of these engineers couldn’t solve complex problems as well as the older generation. The human resources folks began a study of why this was and conducted a vast number of interviews in order to determine factors that differed between the older engineers and the younger ones to improve their hiring decisions. What they found was that both the older and younger engineers who excelled at solving complex problems were those who worked with their hands in their childhoods – the ones who took radios and clocks apart, built tree-houses, and had an understanding about how things worked in a three-dimensional environment.

One of the types of play highlighted is that of physical play, including being able to play with, manipulate, and alter real materials in your hands, which connects to powerful areas of learning and creativity in the brain.

Other observations highlighted in the book include the study of animals that partake in differing amounts of play. Animal and human play researchers have found that animals that stop playing exhibit more compulsive, rigid and purpose-driven behavior whereas beings that include play throughout their lives are more open to change, exhibit sustained curiosity and are better able to incorporate new information.

Play is frequently used to provide relief when struggling with a big idea or when interacting with others where conflict may be present. A joke at the right time can relax and open people to being able to communicate and listen to another when that might not have been possible without a playful ice breaker. Group play encourages creativity and creates bonds, which is why corporations hold brainstorming sessions and off-site team-building days.

Dr. Brown makes the case that not only does play help our brains to function better, but that there is evidence that play increases our immune strength. Not only is play key to adaptation and survival but it is our culture: our music, art, sports, dance and festivals.

As the knowledge economy is overtaken by the creative economy, play becomes crucial as our brain’s ability to innovate is linked to play. Work can be play, as almost anything can be play if a playful attitude is present. As James Michener wrote:
“The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his information and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence at whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him, he’s always going both. “

What part can Museums take in encouraging play for all? Museums of all types have the ability to encourage play in visitors of all ages. Children’s museums can create playful environments that parents and grandparent can engage in and all Museums can find ways of allowing visitors to manipulate real things with their hands and experience with their whole bodies. Some of the tips Dr. Brown suggests lend themselves particularly well to the Museum environment:

1. Connect to an individual’s play history. When interviewing adults about play in their childhood, many quote the opportunity to make something with their hands, using specific toys such as dolls, blocks and Lincoln logs and engaging with drama. Museums can encourage these connections by providing manipulative toys that allow generations to talk about their play histories while also providing things like costumes in adult sizes.

2. Expose your visitors to play. Create opportunities for visitors to slow down, sit quietly and listen, pick up a ball or sit on the floor with a child.

3. Give permission to play. Create an environment in the Museum where play feels welcome, un-judged, and people are given the opportunity to laugh at themselves in a safe place.

4. But also give permission to skip play if it’s uncomfortable for anyone.

5. Be active. Museums can creatively present so many ideas and objects through innovative means and can include movement. One of my favorite programs at the Tate Britain was in conjunction with an exhibit of Francis Bacon paintings. They had a movement program called “bend it like Bacon,” which invited visitors to mock the sometimes very strange positions of models in the paintings.

6. Create a safe environment. Free your visitors from the fear that they might fail or look silly when playing. Staff can model play and put visitors at lease and areas where visitors might make funny faces or do something silly might have some privacy walls.

Dr. Seuss’ was an individual who never stopped playing or encouraging play in others through his many books. In honor of his birthday last month here is one of his quotes: “I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living. It’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope. Which is what I do, and that enables you to laugh at life’s realities.” I think Dr. Brown couldn’t agree more.

Click HERE to hear Dr. Stuart Brown talk about play on TED.