I usually avoid the scholarly research on play for two reasons: (1) fear that its dry, academic prose would end the long-standing pleasure I get from playing creatively as an adult; and (2) saying anything serious about play feels more like an oxymoron. Much to my surprise, however, a recent foray into the realm of science and theoretical inquiry uncovered some fascinating ideas and insights.

Dr. Stuart Brown is a researcher who founded the National Institute for Play. He sees play as an indispensable part of human development, important for fostering empathy, trust, and the ability to manage complexity. (His early work studied the lives of convicted murderers and found a striking absence of play opportunities during childhood.)

“We are biologically designed to play throughout our life cycle” [emphasis mine], Brown explains in a 2008 radio interview. The consequences of not doing so are rigidity, depression, and lack of adaptability — the exact opposite of traits like resiliency and acceptance that numerous studies have shown to be key ingredients of healthy aging. (I once asked an elderly woman what advice she would give a newcomer moving into the skilled nursing facility where she lived: “We have to make up our minds that this is our life now. This isn’t what we want it to be, but this is what it is. And if you don’t like it, go argue with God.”)

Brown describes play as something done for its own sake, an activity marked by pleasure, joy, and spontaneity, which has no apparent practical purpose. He adds that “life without play is just an endurance contest.” Johan Huizinga, a Dutch historian whose 1938 treatise, Homo Ludens, A Study of the Play Element in Culture, is arguably the seminal work on the subject, writes that “play is older than culture, for culture . . . always presupposes human society, and animals have not waited for man to teach them their playing.” (Marc Bekoff, Gordon Burghardt, Robert Fagen, and Jane Goodall, are among the most prominent scientists who have studied play behavior in the wild.)

Inspired by these writings, and acutely aware that Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary takes approximately 8 inches to define play, I’ve come up with my own very simplified definition: any activity not directly or indirectly related to survival. Framed this way, the usual Puritanical hierarchy of work vs. play is inverted: play takes on more substance as the chosen expression of a free individual — what Brown describes as “the union of self and talent” (never mind today’s mindless entertainment). The German poet and philosopher Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) makes a similar point in his book, On the Aesthetic Education of Man in a Series of Letters: “Man plays only when he is in the full sense of the word man, and he is only wholly man when he plays.”

The next time my client L~ asks, “What’s the point?,” I’ll have to quote Schiller! :)