Dr. Stuart Brown of the University of California, Los Angeles, states that playing is not just joyful and energizing but is deeply involved in human development and intelligence.
Brown’s first piece of research on the importance of play focused on Charles Whitman, who, at the University of Texas, Austin, in August of 1966, climbed the campus tower and killed fifteen people and injured 31 after killing his wife and mother before being gunned down by campus police. Brown and other authorities in disciplines of toxicology, neurology, neuropathology, graphology, sociology, psychology, psychiatry, and law enforcement concurred in studying Whitman that the major environmental factors in the development of his behavioral problems were the over control by his father and the unending abuse by his mother, in addition to a lifelong lack of play.
His parents deprived him of imaginative, parallel, give-and-take, and social play. Charlie was not allowed to play outside; inside, he had to play the piano for other children as his play activities. The result, Brown states, was that nothing Charlie did came from within. In preschool, he would watch what the other kids were doing and then imitate their behavior, according to one of his teachers. He just did not have the ability to perform internally motivated play, and his responses to the world were too narrow just to play freely. However not all people with Whitman’s background develop into criminals. There were perhaps genetic factors that predisposed him to his reaction to the environment.
[Over half of male inmates (56%) reported experiencing childhood physical trauma according to the book Patterns of Victimization Among Male and Female Inmates: Evidence of an Enduring Legacy.]
So, what is it about playing freely and its importance to the brain’s development? Many researchers have shown that play stimulates nerve growth where emotions get processed and where executive decisions are processed. Jaak Pankseipp, another specialist in play research, suggests that “without play, optimal learning, normal social functioning, self-control, and other executive functions may not mature properly.”
In his book San Fransicko, Michael Shellenberger points out that “children today spend less time on self-directed creative play, as opposed to time spent with electronic devices, or in structured activities organized by adults.” Less free play creates children who are afraid to take risks important to being creative in later life.
Nancy L. Segal stated in her book Deliberately Divided that exposure to abusive environments overwhelms the genetically based predispositions of children and that children raised in these environments will not thrive socially or intellectually. Even with good physical care, orphanage-raised children deprived of playful interactions use their hands as toys, do not laugh or smile, and show stereotypical behaviors such as hand banging and body rocking.
According to Peter Gray of Boston College, children’s free play has declined sharply over the past century in the United States. It is related to a rise in psychological disorders such as anxiety, depression, suicide, feelings of helplessness, and even narcissism in young children, adolescents, and adults. Gray cites the following behaviors as important results of play in developing good mental health:
- develop intrinsic interests and competencies;
- learn how to make decisions, solve problems, exert self-control, and follow rules;
- learn how to regulate their emotions;
- make friends and get along with others as equals; and
- experience joy (Brown, 2010).
Parents can help to give their full attention by looking at their children and being responsive to their physical movements. In general, giving undivided attention to your child and having quality time with him/her is important at any age. Many times, I have witnessed mothers or caregivers on their cell phones while the child is trying to interact with them. This does not mean that one must give the child 100% of their time, for the child needs to learn to wait at times for attention, but it is important to be there for them. Enjoy your child, talk to, dance with, read to them, and look into their eyes when you interact with them, for they are special. Encourage free play in addition to board games and other interactive activities.