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Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul


Play is, for many, a lost art. Somewhere between childhood and growing up, we’ve lost our ability to really play. However, play doesn’t have to be a separate activity from our day-to-day lives. Play can – and perhaps should be – woven into the very fabric of our lives. In Stewart Brown’s book Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul, he covers how we’ve lost play and how to reclaim it.

Playing into Flow

Play has some very interesting connections to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow. (See FlowFinding Flow, and The Rise of Superman for more on flow.) The conditions for play that Brown highlights are:

  • Apparently purposeless (done for its own sake)
  • Voluntary Inherent attraction
  • Freedom from time
  • Diminished consciousness of self
  • Improvisational potential
  • Continuation desire

Comparing this list, to Csikszentmihalyi’s list of characteristics for flow we see a great deal of overlap. Czikszentmihalyi’s list for flow is:

  • Intense and focused concentration on the present moment
  • Merging of action and awareness
  • A loss of reflective self-consciousness
  • A sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
  • A distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time is altered
  • Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience

At a direct look only two of Brown’s criteria – Apparent purposelessness and Improvisational potential don’t directly map. However, later in Brown’s own book he admits that play is about the internal attitude of the activity not the activity itself – and so while I believe play does not need to have an explicit relationship to something purposeful but it can if you have the right attitude. (More on this idea later.)

While flow does not require improvisation, it does generate it. Research studies indicate that people in flow are more creative and that this creativity lasts for days after the flow state. (See The Rise of Superman for more on the chemicals involved and the creativity.)

The state of play and the state of flow are so closely connected that one could wonder how the most productive state (flow) might be the evolutionary byproduct of the development of play – a way for us to learn how to better adapt to our environments in a safe way.

Consciously Creative

Play may be important for children, but an important question is “How is it important to business today?” The answer comes from the relationship between play and creativity. It comes from the desire that businesses have today to have people that are more creative. Theory U quoted Richard Florida of Carnegie Mellon University in speaking of “the rise of the creative class” and attributed roughly 30% of all employed people into this new creative class. According to an IBM global survey of 1,500 top executives in sixty countries, the most desirable skill in a CEO was creativity.

Creativity is serious business – it is the driving force behind Pixar’s success (See Creativity, Inc. for more on Pixar and creativity) as well as many other organizations (See Unleashing Innovation for how Whirlpool leverages creativity and innovation.) However, it is play’s characteristic of continuing desire is what converts creativity into innovation.

Defining Innovation

As it turns out, I have written about innovation in my chapter titled “Removing Innovation Friction by Improving Meetings” for the Ark Group Book Smarter Innovation: Using Interactive Processes to Drive Better Business Results.
Innovation is not just creative ideas. Innovation is taking those creative ideas and seeing them through to the end. That takes a persistence that you develop through play. You learn to enjoy the “birthing” process so much that you continue to play with your creation until it becomes something real and tangible.

I cannot tell you the number of people who are impressed at the humble child safety cards that we created for Kin-to-Kid Connection (Visit for more on the child safety cards.) While there are many comments about the cards themselves, I’m astounded at the number of people who have congratulated us on simply accomplishing something – converting the idea into implementation.

So play creates the conditions that allow for better creativity through a safe environment and then develops the persistence to get things done. (See How Children Succeed for the impact of persistence – which the book calls grit.)

Safer but Not Safe

From an evolutionary standpoint, play is interesting because it’s energy that is expended with no clear and direct purpose. That is, it is not hunting and it is not recovering – so how is play a useful part of the evolutionary process. The answer it turns out may have more to do with our ability to create mental simulations than the direct learning of skills. While cats deprived of play can still hunt and kill, antelope will be maladjusted with the herd, if they have been deprived of play. We are not just rehearsing our practical skills; we’re learning to simulate alternative realities in a safe way.

One of the challenges of our world is that it is not safe. We seek out ways to manage our apparent safety either by taking risks or by avoiding risks. For some, who didn’t get enough “licking and grooming” and therefore didn’t develop a secure attachment to their parents, there never seems to be enough safety. (See How Children Succeed for more on licking and grooming.) For others, we cower and never get a chance to find the courage to be ourselves perhaps because we did not have enough opportunities for safe play. (See Find Your Courage for more on being courageous.)

Courage is learned through play whether it’s in sparring (See The Art of Learning), just talking (see Dialogue), or even having crucial conversations (see Crucial Conversations). Courage is feeling safe enough that you can learn and grow – that you can take appropriate risks.

However, play is not safe. Play is relatively safe. That is that we are measuring our risks and not taking unnecessary risks. The simple fact of the matter is that sometimes animals and humans die while playing – so from an evolutionary standpoint it is necessary for the benefits of play to outweigh the few casualties that result from it.

Simulations are one of the things that humans do best. While we may withstand the worst of this with additional stress, it is an extremely effective way for us to adapt and avoid dangers that we could not normally see. Consider the fire captains that Gary Klein researched for Sources of Power who were running mental simulations to create effective firefighting strategies.

Learning Safety

We really learn differently when we are stressed. Quite literally, the processes that are at work to integrate memory are different depending upon our state when we are learning. When we are in a stressed state, the memories are routed via the hippocampus and stored for use by the amygdala to use for the pattern recognition used in fight or flight. The memories are therefore not directly accessible by the conscious. (See IncognitoLost KnowledgeSharing Hidden Know-How, and The New Edge in Knowledge for more about knowledge management and how we don’t have access to all of our memories.)

Play creates an air of safety that surrounds the activity and ultimately allows the lessons learned to be applied to other situations and environments. Play is supposed to be safe and is therefore supports the development of memories which can be applied to other situations.

Purpose and Play

Brown quotes Running Magazine as categorizing runners into four main categories: the exerciser, the competitor, the enthusiast, and the socializer. Every runner is objectively performing the same action – that is they are all running. Running is a means to some end – it is not the end itself. However, the experience for each – the internal game – is different. The socializer does not worry much about whether their running is good or bad. The Enthusiast just enjoys the act of running and does it for the pleasure. The exerciser may be disappointed with their workout and the competitor about their performance. Four different people, the same activity and four different reactions.

What if play isn’t about the actions that we’re performing? What if it is not about whether we are doing a pickup game of football or volleyball but is instead about the way that we are approaching it. What if play is about being in flow – rather than the actions we are doing? Brown carefully explains that because play is self-fulfilling and therefore better players will play-down to the rest of the players to keep the game going.

Malcom Gladwell made Anders Ericsson’s research regarding expertise popular in his book Outliers. Outliers says that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at something. However, the caveat here is that it has to be purposeful practice. However, Ericsson might have been speaking about flow and play. He was clear that the objective had to be to become better at the object of the effort. The examples that are often cited by Gladwell and others clearly enjoyed the work that they were doing – they could not distinguish it from play. The objective for them – the purpose – was often just to drive something forward. Their purpose was the purpose of becoming better, becoming more than they were.

It seems that play is the internal state of mind, which is characterized by a desire to improve – even if there’s no clear tie to being a “productive” human. Csikszentmihalyi was clear that flow required a clear goal and constant feedback. However, the clear goal can be to get better – even if one cannot explain exactly what better would mean.

So when examined closely, it seems that play can have a purpose – but the purpose of play cannot be to be productive. Play requires the feeling of safety even in failure.

Building a Brain for the Ambiguity of Life

The best adaptability and survival technique that Mother Nature has come up with is the ability to learn. It turns out that the ability to learn – rapidly and continuously – has a huge evolutional advantage. It’s no wonder then that play creates a strong positive learning effect – one which dramatically out paces the risks associated with the activities of play (in most cases.)

Traditional adult education says that adult learners need to be trained at the moment in time that they need the learning (readiness), why they need to know a piece of information (need to know), that they have the foundational concepts necessary to integrate the new information (foundation), and that they have an understanding of the problem they are trying to solve (self-concept). The training must be focused on solving problems (orientation) and the motivation for learning must map to the internal motivations of the student (motivation). (See The Adult Learner for more on adult learning.)

Most of the research in education (See Efficiency in Learning) is focused on the management of cognitive load. That is, most educational research says that helping to keep students focused on the task at hand is an important – if not essential part of the process for learning. Students (of all ages) have a limited working memory and without the ability to create complex schemas and chunking to reduce the load on working memory they’re frequently overloaded or teetering on the edge of being overloaded. (Efficiency in Learning talks about schemas. Sources of Power uses the word models for the same ability to process a large number of items as if they’re one thing.)

Lost Knowledge, which is focused on the retention of critical tacit knowledge explains the learning problem from the point of view of strategies of learning which are more and less effective. Instead of focusing on creating focus, Lost Knowledge focuses on approaches, which are more effective while admitting that capturing tacit knowledge is very difficult. That is, gaining experience and integrating the unspoken learnings from the experiential process, is challenging.

This is where play comes in. Play is autotelic – that is self-motivating. This eliminates much of the educational research which is trying to keep from distracting the learner – or allowing the learner to be distracted by their passing thoughts. When you couple in the self-regulating challenge aspects of play and realize that play will regulate the level of challenge into an acceptable band you’re left with an educational opportunity which is incredibly effective.

When organizations seek to teach their employees how to handle situations for which there is no rulebook the best strategy is to run simulations of the situations that you can expect – and allow the employees to internalize the foundational principles and to develop guidelines which can be generally applied to any situation. That’s what play is – simulation – and so it’s not surprising that brain development happens at its fastest rate while playing.

Rat Park and Dysfunction

From Chasing the Scream we learned about the studies on rats and the use of drugs. We learned that the rats that drugged themselves to death were in solitary confinement. They did not have other rats to play with – or things either. Their life was solitary and without any way to play or interact. So faced with an awful situation the rats chose drugs to numb their pain. When the rats were allowed to socialize with other rats, they rarely used drugs. The context of rat park was the study of drugs. However, somewhere along the way, we learned that socialization was important for rats. Buried in socialization is the innate need to play.

When humans are deprived of play as a child and as an adult, they have a disproportionately higher chance of creating harm or being locked up. You don’t have to be Charles Whitman in a bell tower to be handicapped by the lack of play. An over-controlled childhood with a lack of play seems to be a way to lead yourself to jail. We need play – just like the antelope – to learn how to get along socially and how to self-regulate.

Play Signals

Knowing that you need play is one thing – knowing when it is time to play is another. In the animal world, there are “tells” for when animals are playing. A dog will “bow” and wag its tail. There are also tells that the dog isn’t playing – like hair standing up on their backs. During the engagement, you’ll see animals voluntarily rolling on their backs to indicate they need a break or to reduce their position of power over the other animal.

Animals, even of different species, recognize these play signals and respond accordingly. They instinctively know that play is an important part of learning and growing. Even if humans aren’t endowed with the same level of play awareness we can improve our play and reading Play may be the place to start.