057: What is the value of play?

Does play really matter? Do children get anything out of it? Or is it just messing around; time that could be better spent preparing our children for success in life?

Today we talk with Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play, about the benefits of play for both children and – I was surprised to find – adults.

This is the first in a series of episodes on play – lots more to come on outdoor play (and how to raise kids who love being outdoors), risky play, and imaginative play.


Dr. Stuart Brown’s Book

Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul – Affiliate link



Bjorklund, D.F., & Brown, R.D. (1998). Physical play and cognitive development: Integrating activity, cognition, and education. Child Development, 69, 604-606.

Brown, S. (2009). Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul. New York, NY: Penguin.

Christakis, D. A., F. J. Zimmerman, and M. Garrison. (2007). Effect of block play on language acquisition and attention in toddlers a pilot randomized controlled trial. Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine,161 (10), 967-971.

Csíkszentmihályi, Mihály (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper and Row.

Duckworth, A.L. (2016). Grit: The power of passion and perseverance. New York, NY: Scribner.

Elkind, D. (2003). Thanks for the memory: The lasting value of true play. Young Children 58(3), 46-51.

Lancy, D.F. (2015). The anthropology of childhood: Cherubs, chattel, changelings (2nd Ed.). Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.


Read Full Transcript


Jen:  [00:40]

Hello and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. We’re kicking off a series of episodes today on the topic of play. Now I hear you wondering: play? There’s enough research about play to be able to do one episode, never mind a series of episodes?! And my response to that would be, Oh yes, there is just you. Wait, so we’re going to kick off today with an overview of the topic and then we’ll delve into various aspects of play with a particular focus on outdoor play because it’s important to me and just sometimes that’s how we pick topics around here. So today we have is our very special guest Dr. Stuart Brown, MD. I first learned of his work when I heard the National Institute for Play mentioned during a show on NPR. I thought to myself, there is a national institute for play. I have to talk to somebody from there, and so Dr. Brown, who’s the founder and director of the National Institute for Play is here to share his research and work. I was fascinated to read his book play, how it shapes the brain, opens the imagination and invigorates the soul because I was expecting it to tell me how important play is to my daughter’s development, but I wasn’t expecting it to tell me how important play is to my own wellbeing as well. So we’ll get into that to welcome Dr. Brown.

Dr. Brown: [01:51]

Glad to be here Jen.

Jen:    [01:53]

So let’s start with something that seems kind of obvious, but then you think about it a bit and you realize that you’re actually not quite sure what it is. So I’m wondering, can you please define play for us?

Dr. Brown: [02:04]

Well, it’s very hard to define; it’s a little like love in that play is an experience and it is often prompted by pre-verbal sorts of impulses. But having said that, we always like to think of it as something that is definable, although I think most of us, if we see a puppy or kitty playing in front of us, we know that what they’re doing is play, but it’s voluntary; it’s done for its own sake. It appears purposeless. It takes one out of a sense of time. There is a diminished sense of self importance. You’re just engaged in what you’re doing. It’s fun and pleasurable. It can be interrupted. It’s not driven like addictive or other kinds of activities in general. Like to go back to it and experience it again and it is something that’s deeply instinctively embedded in the humans. So that’s a start anyhow.

Jen:   [03:11]

And I’m wondering if you can talk us through, Scott Eberle, I think is how you say his name. He has a six step process of play that you describe in your book. Can you walk us through those six steps?

Dr. Brown:  [03:22]

I don’t know if I can go through all six steps butt Scott Eberle was the distinguished editor of the American Journal of Play from its start until just recently when he retired and he has established what he considers the elements of play, kind of like the periodic table of elements define the atomic structure. Then he goes from anticipation to poise and describes there’s anticipation, surprise, increased strength, agility, curiosity, and takes these elements, and if I had them listed in front of me. I could read them off, but he has a whole array of gradations that go from, as you anticipate, for example, an experience of play, whether it’s playing a sport or reading a novel that you’re looking forward to. There is that heightened sense of anticipation. Then once you get into the various elements of play, they establish a kind of a “state of play.” Then he and I have gone back and forth. It had lots of really sort of discussions about his play elements fit very well into the burgeoning neuroscience of play.

Jen:     [04:46]

Mmmm. And I’m also wondering as you were reading, as you were talking through some of the elements of play, I was thinking about Czikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow, but it seems to me as though that might be more applicable to when people are working more than playing because they have goal-directed behavior and you said that the play doesn’t have goal-directed behavior. Can you help us to tease out what are the connections between play and flow?

Dr. Brown:   [05:11]

I don’t know that it’s correct to say that it doesn’t have goal direction. It is at the time one is experiencing it, the outcome of the experience is less important than the experience itself. That doesn’t mean that the experience doesn’t have purpose. I think one can enjoy a hike or a job and say, oh, well, you know, I’m just doing this for its own sake, and yet it increases physical fitness and personal health, so there is an outcome.

Dr. Brown:   [05:45]

So this is not to say that the experience of play itself doesn’t have outcome and deep purpose. It’s just that at the moment, if you’re terribly anxious about performing, you’re probably not playing as much as if you’re just doing something for its own sake.

Jen:   [06:04]

And so you alluded to something there that I wanted to get into a bit more deeply and that is about the purpose of play and specifically how that differs for children from different cultures.

Dr. Brown:  [06:16]

Well, I don’t know that it differs; I think there are cultures that foster and cultures that suppress it, but I think particularly developmentally that the value of play and the necessity of play for wholeness and wellbeing at a full use of curiosity and engagement in the world, those are universals and they apply both to the human experience cross-culturally and they apply to social mammals at play, and so you see the necessity of particularly early developmental play, whether you’re a coyote or a dolphin or a horse or a human.

Jen:   [07:03]

Okay. So this is sort of very common experience then for mammals. And is it right to say that humans have sort of perfected it and taken it to another level, or is it much the same as you see in humans as in other animals?

Dr. Brown:   [07:20]

We’re different in that we have language, imagination, curiosity, the search for novelty, but the patterns of play that we see in kids and in highly intelligent animals really quite similar. Then we can learn from animal play a lot about its value because laboratory scientists can objectify that and study it and suppress it and then see the benefits or the effect of a lack of play on development and in highly social mammals and that’s not an ethical thing we could do or want to do with humans.

Jen: [07:54]

Right, and I know that your work has actually focused on children and adults where children experienced play deprivation. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Dr. Brown:    [08:05]

Well, in a long, long time ago, over 50 years ago, I got involved in studying a mass murderer who had gone to the top of the Texas tower after killing his wife and mother. He was a 25 year old ex-Marine Eagle Scout, no legal history and [unintelligible] killed 14 people and wounded 32. It was then the largest mass murder in the U.S., which unfortunately has been superseded by may that we’ve seen in our recent time. Anyhow, we looked closely at this individual’s life and he was killed on the top of the tower by vigilante gunfire to stop his outpouring of violence, but we did a very, very detailed study of his life history going back three generations and I won’t go through the whole story, but we found – we being the commission – and we found that his father had systematically suppressed play again and again and again, so that literally this young man grew up without the experience of free play and with the need to conform to the demands and control of this sadistic and disturbed father.

Dr. Brown:   [09:30]

So that initial study which was done very carefully and included a very detailed review of his physiology, sort of opened my eyes to what’s going on here that play is so important, particularly in this young man’s life? And it appeared to be necessary for him to have suppressed his violent impulses, which were hidden in part of his diaries and imagination, but not been evident until this moment and the tragedy on the top of the tower. So that then led to a formal study of homicidal males and the Texas prison system for a year or so with a team and we found that the homicidal individuals who were very violent men compared to match controls had very different play history. They there were isolated or bullied or tortured or they were themselves bullies. They didn’t have a normal play background, so we found in that and some other research following, I won’t go through all of it, that have a normal rough and tumble play and the kinds of activities that most of us engage in spontaneously as children were not experienced in general by the populations of violence and social man and so that led me in the course of my long clinical career to review the play histories of everyone that I saw and the psychiatric interns and residents and psychology intern, social workers and the like that were part of my teaching career also collected these detailed…as detailed as possible play histories and one from that long and involved anecdotal history and again, they get a sense that when play is adequate, it really leads to a more fulfilled and meaningful life in one play is seriously deprived life that it has consequences and they’re not obviously homicide or murder, but there are consequences that I think are significant, so it’s from that long base that led to my, when I left clinical practice, led to my independent scholarship and establishment of the National Institute for Play.

Jen:     [12:06]

Okay. So I’m curious as to some of the methodological issues with understanding the importance of play history as you’ve just described it and I imagine that people when they were children who had sub-optimal play, history’s probably also had other things going on in their homes as well. You mentioned the Texas murderer having a difficult relationship with a sub-optimal father. How do you tease out the importance of play compared to everything else that might be going on in a family where play is not valued?

Dr. Brown:   [12:37]

I think it’s difficult. And I think the fact that these anecdotal reviews were not all established with a rigorous research design means that one can make generalizations about that, but what you see from the lives, particularly where play is intensely, where there’s real deprivation, let’s say the child is isolated or they’ve got a psychotic mother and father, so that there’s no verbal interchange and playfulness and you begin to see the really severe deprivations, then from that and from the murderers, once you get a sense that even if there is abuse and poverty and other kinds of mayhem in the family background, still what stands out as different from a lot of other individuals who had some of those same difficulties, but were able to play, we do see that play has a nourishing, developmentally important component that leads toward wellbeing and resiliency and self organization and things that are otherwise don’t seem to happen in the absence of play.

Dr. Brown:   [13:56]

So I can’t tell you that you know, this is. I can write an article and a peer review group would say, okay, we can now pinpoint exactly what play does. I don’t think one can do that and separate it from some of the other issues, but when you then take a look at the animal world and then objectify and limit play highly playful, playful rats, for example, and see the effect on their development and brain function, you begin to get a sense that the experience of play among the playful social mammal is necessary for competency and wellbeing.

Jen:   [14:43]

Alright, so that helps us to understand why play is important. So let’s talk about some of the hows we revisit pretty often on this show David Lancy’s book, The Anthropology of Childhood. And so I went back to that book and saw that there was a whole listing of entries in the index for play. And so I went through and read them and I found that in many cultures parents just don’t play with their children at all, particularly if you’re in a culture where there’s a high child mortality rate and the parents just aren’t supposed to get attached to their child. And in many cultures parents aim to raise children who are compliant. And so they do this by wearing the baby, by anticipating the child’s needs. And essentially by not interacting with the child unnecessarily, but in our culture, It’s pretty common for parents to actually play with children, but I was sort of amused to realize that children in other cultures will often play independently for hours by themselves and American parents do sometimes play with their children, but they also expanded quite a bit of energy trying to get their children to play independently, which children and other cultures have mastered perfectly well without being prompted. So I’m curious as to your thoughts on the value of parental play with children to the child.

Dr. Brown:    [15:57]

Well, I think parental play is extremely valuable and has a exploration of the possible, searching on novelty, being secure and safe in a protected environment so that there is, I think, enrichment that occurs with culturally approved parent child play. I do think there are almost no cultures that suppress play enough where’s there’s almost no child-child or peer-peer play. And I think many cultures there’s not parent child play, but there’s a lot of mixed age play where the older kids play with the younger kids and there really is a kind of a natural parenting among the play styles that take place. And I’m not an anthropologist, so I don’t claim to cultural expertise. I think there’s some general principles that indicate play is really important developmentally and it is a natural experience for child-child exposure to each other. There’s an onset of play when that happens, when your kids will play, whether they’re Eskimos or Aborigines, they will still play. Or live on the upper west side in Manhattan.

Jen:    [17:23]

And so in cultures where parents do play with children, what kind of role should the parent take? Should I lead that play? Should I let her lead that play? Is there some kind of middle ground there? How should that work?

Dr. Brown:   [17:38]

You know, I think this is where there’s a lot of general misunderstanding about play itself, because I think what produces natural gleefulness and produces sense of engagement and joy very early; six months on. Let’s say that if the parent then is fostering what turns to produce pleasure, whether it’s physical play or verbal play or musical play or games or objects or toys, the child will have a preference, a kind of a play preference or play personality that that child will exhibit and which will… And if you think back to your own childhood or you have a daughter, I think you said, she will have exhibited things that are for her, giving her a natural high, a natural sense of joyfulness and it’s more than one thing, but in general that kind of profile is intrinsic to the child and the child himself or herself will tell you and show you what it is they love, you know, I think I’ve got eight grandchildren and they’re all different and they play different. They don’t have the same natural predilection and as they’ve grown up, they go from now from ages 15 to 24, they have…there have been natural changes as they’ve aged, and certain preferences. But I think profiling personality, each of us is an important element for parents to observe and know about.

Jen:     [19:23]

And so how do we do that? How do I as a parent sort of identify what my child’s play personality. Is there sort of a suite of options or is it more, oh, she seems to prefer this kind of toys, or how does that work?

Dr. Brown:    [19:38]

I think this is where you don’t impose your own values system on the kid. Okay, I want this to be an engineer, this boy to be an engineer so he’d better really enjoy making things. Well, he may not want to make things; he may be a verbal, social person without interest in objects. Observe that, and then don’t put your own urgent need of the child show you and you know their own spontaneous rough and tumble play when they’re in, let’s say preschool, the natural proclivities they have in early elementary school give you, you the parent, cues to what to follow. And this is not a rigid thing, it’s just a generalization, but I think it’s a really important element and I think if our culture understood play better, we all would be a more effective parents.

Jen:   [20:35]

Alright. So it seems as though children naturally play amongst themselves if they’re given half a chance and we can use that to sort of identify our child’s interests and if we see them perhaps at preschool or a daycare playing together and doing things like cooking, then is that something we can sort of bring back home and say let’s play at cooking or let’s do some cooking. would that be a way to extend the child’s play?

Dr. Brown:    [21:00]

Absolutely. Very, very good example.

Jen:     [21:03]

Okay, so the general idea then is to watch what your child does and provide more opportunities for doing that in other environments, in other settings with other materials.

Dr. Brown:  [21:16]

Correct. And not necessarily have a performance oriented… Lots of parents in preschool are very worried about their kid being ready to read and understanding basic math concepts so that they’re preoccupied often that the play be purposeful and they transmit that anxiety and performance requirements to the kid. So the kid realizes wanting to please the parent, you know, that that’s the interaction that’s taking place instead of a self-organizing feeling from within the child that says this is what I really love and want to do. So that’s kind of a subtle difference.

Jen:     [22:02]

OK. So let’s talk about technology in play because I think that can be a difficult one for a lot of parents because children are so drawn to it. And just as an example, I’m thinking of, I don’t think we have any battery operated toys in our home, mostly because I can’t stand the noise, but also because I do believe in the power of the child’s imagination and having toys around that she can use in many different ways that don’t confine her to using them in a certain way, but we were over at a friend’s house recently and they had a little battery operated fake cell phone toy and my daughter just sat on the sofa with that thing for an hour and stuck it up next to her ear and press the buttons over and over. Is that her telling me, Mama, I need some battery operated toys, or was I on the right track? By not providing those and how can parents just manage that? The integration of technology into their children’s play.

Dr. Brown:   [22:57]

I wish I had a simple answer to this; I don’t. The images and the gadgetry and the visual stimulation and the fun of operating one of these battery operated technologically sophisticated objects – they’re very compelling. I think the thing that makes sense to me is that those objects don’t become a full substitute for outdoor activity, which I think we’ll talk about more later, or for some kind of curiosity about nature, which is equally important in my view, but technology is here to stay, so the kid needs to be comfortable and capable and I think the parent needs to monitor the time spent and the way that the gadgetry itself, but as I said, I don’t have a simple answer for you to this one.

Jen:   [23:52]

So I guess let’s dive right into outdoor play then. We’re going to be talking a lot about that in future episodes, but I wonder if you could just give us an overview of how important you think nature-based play is?

Dr. Brown:    [24:05]

Well, I think if you look at the design of the human being biologically and our sensory apparatus and the sort of the heritage that we had over a million years or so, going from foraging to hunter gatherer to tribal organizations, which is sort of how our bodies evolved and designed, the importance of three dimensional movement against gravity. The use distance as well as looking off in the distance as well as close at hand; the understanding of the ecology that’s around you so you can make sense of the world around you; the natural world – that these elements are all part of our biological design so that when there is, as Richard Louv says, Nature Deficit Disorder, where we really are not part of the natural world, I think we are losing a chunk of what it is we’re designed to be and you know, I’m looking at it from my office at a beautiful array of live oak trees are are two ravens that are on a fence and this seems somehow to nourish me to be really necessary and important as a part of my adult life. And I think when kids are entirely separate from the natural world, I think there is for them a real loss and I know that in taking my grandchildren hiking for example, there often is a resistance to getting out and doing it and yet once we’re involved in the exposure to nature, there often is a wonder and curiosity, that seems to just bubble up from within them.

Jen:    [26:06]

It’s awesome, isn’t it?

Dr. Brown:   [26:08]

Yeah. You know, even if you’re in a very urban setting or you know you’re in Buffalo today, 13 inches of snow or something like that, it may not be as easy to be a part of nature and yet I think that’s partly what we’re…how we’re designed to be…even if we’ve got electricity and radiant heat and all that good stuff in our homes.

Jen:  [26:33]

Yeah. So I think a lot of parents saying, okay, well I wasn’t raised with nature. I don’t really know how to do that, but I want my kids to move their body. I want them to know maybe they don’t fully vocalize through the looking near and far thing and they think how can we get that? Ooh, organized sports! And so I have actually read that adults have taken over at children’s place so completely that some children don’t know how to play and may even refuse to play without an adult providing rules and structure for a game of pickup baseball or something like that. So where does organized sports fit into all of this?

Dr. Brown:   [27:12]

What you just said is sad, but true. I think there’s a good place for organized sports, and the National Institute for Play has had an adviser by the name of Gary Avischious who lives in the Denver area and he has organized a lot of the sports activities among his neighborhood and locale and then he’s done some workshops where in the idea of personal effort and respect for, you know, if there is an overweight kid who’s a klutz athletically, but it was really trying hard. That kid gets the same respect as the star. And although competition is a natural part of most sporting life, the number of kids that drop out from his sports activities is almost zero per year. Whereas if you look at the average a Little League or other sports activities and you the average drop off for years, 35 percent.

Dr. Brown:   [28:16]

So I think what you said about parent involvement, where parents are really revved up about whether their kids winning a soccer or something takes away the joyfulness and the freedom of the sport. Which somebody like Gary has been able to be well off the sideline. I’ve been to one of his banquets at the end of the year where his team did not win, but the team that was there with them and the waiters who were serving the pizza that everybody couldn’t figure out which team had won because his team still had the exuberance of fun with sport, so it can be… I think there are ways of making the sporting life for kids, for kids in particular, more significant correspondence yesterday with somebody talking about Olympic champions and Olympic champions often have multisport experience, not just specialists in one particular sport on the way up and that’s not generally known. And yet the Olympic Committee talks about this is the way to have a more balanced person, less injury prone, is to be involved in multiple sports.

Jen:     [29:44]

Yeah. The image of the child who discovered gymnastics at three and pursued it with a single minded dedication until I went and Olympic medal is sort of a common one, isn’t it?

Dr. Brown:   [29:55]

Yep. And you know, there are those kids that are so gifted that that’s, that’s the way they go and they’re exuberant at it. So there are obviously exceptions, but in general, multiple sports. And you know, we’re not…very few of us are going to be stars or professional athletes, so you do it for the love of the game and the respect that you have for effort. And that can be taught.

Jen:    [30:20]

Yeah. And so that leads me nicely into a question that had about grit, which is getting a ton of press these days and we actually did an episode on that topic a few weeks back and Professor Angela Duckworth has done a lot of this research and she has a book called Grit and she talks about allowing children to experiment and find whatever sport or other idea it is that resonates with them. It could be playing the piano or whatever, but after that she advocates for parents supporting their children and developing grit. And I’m going to quote her “by engaging in rigorous, committed, never ending practice that leads to mastery. It’s finding your weaknesses and addressing them day after day and saying whatever it takes I want to improve.” And so just contrasting that with the exuberance that you talked about in the team that didn’t win the championship and wondering are the two ideas mutually exclusive or is there something about making something more like play that makes it easier to be gritty about it?

Dr. Brown:  [31:18]

Well, when I look at let’s say the natural history of play behavior and you watch it the two year old messing with blocks and what you see if they like to make things and structured things, you’ll see engagement, perseverance, rigorous sort of concentration which is a part of mastery and play. So if the piano is not your thing and you’re being forced to be rigorous and gritty, make sure it fits with the talent, and then the engagement and the grit will tend to be, I think less honorous and more a natural part of the play ethic and you know, I can be involved and not really mixed with the work ethic, but there is a sense of real commitment and exuberance and that goes along with the grit. That’s optimum. It may be rare, but it’s optimum.

Jen:     [32:25]


Dr. Brown: [32:25]

I don’t have any big controversy with Angela, and I think there are times when a parent needs to step in where a kid has natural talent and will have trouble or failed or had a little difficulty then the parent does need to offer structure and supervision, but in general, forcing someone to become a ballet dancer when you know they’re going to grow up and be a 185 pounds and that’s not going to fit the ballet scene. Wrong choice.

Jen:   [32:58]

Alright, so let’s shift gears a little bit. I mentioned in the introduction that one of the things that most surprised me when I read your book was the importance of play to adults for the adult’s sake, not just for the child’s sake. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Dr. Brown:   [33:13]

Well, one of the nice things about having had the luxury of doing independent scholarship on play and look at the biological design of various creatures that play a whole lot of their life cycle. And when you do that, you look at the primate heritage that is our human heritage and realize that we’re not very specialized adults. We retain a lot of immature features into our adulthood and by that the example of something common is, if you’ve read the book, you know I write about a labrador retriever, plays until they die; retrieves until they die. They don’t get to be crotchety old wolves. They’re bred to remain immature even though they die of old age. When you look at our primate heritage from a paleo-anthroplogic point of view as best we can, really find that the human being is designed to have flexibility and immature features in our biology, our entire life cycle so that although there’s a much higher drive to play while we’re early and developmentally immature, nonetheless, when we are older, even middle age or old age, there is a need to continue to play. That’s part of our essential biological design called neoteny. And a neotenous state persists so that we have a highly flexible plastic nervous system into old age and a lot of other animals and other primates do not have that. For example, the chimpanzee, which is what, ninety five plus percent of our genes, if they have a stroke and we have a human that has a stroke in the same area of the brain and you do rehab on the chance and you do rehab on the human, human will grow new neurons, will have more plasticity, whereas the chimp will be permanently. That’s a little simplistic, but it’s essentially right. So the play in adulthood and my interview of a lot of adults with play deprivation would indicate that there is, when you don’t follow your biological design to play, it’s not [unintelligible] parallel, but it’s a lot like sleep.

Dr. Brown:   [35:59]

Sleep and dreams are something we see in the animal world. Certainly you see it in all humans, and their sleep patterns are different from infancy to old age, but if you have sleep deprivation, there are consequences and I think there are some interesting parallels about play deprivation that apply to a human being. My clinical experience is you get a high performing adult that’s got play deprivation and they showed some signs of rigidity of thought and mild depression and lack of optimism and not looking for…enjoying novelty and that sort of thing. So you see some consequences from play deprivation and that means to me, we need to play in our adulthood.

Jen:     [36:45]

Yeah. Okay. So let’s talk about how to do that. it seems as though there are a couple of ways we could potentially go about it. One of which is playing with our children and the other is playing without our children, and let’s talk about those separately. So one of the things that I hear a lot from parents is that they kind of feel bad about admitting this, but they don’t particularly enjoy playing with their children and particularly in engaging in imaginative play with their children. And so I personally…I’m going to go on record and say I find some aspects of playing with my daughter pretty boring, particularly the imaginative play and the best way that I personally have found to manage it is to focus on the benefit to me of learning to be in the present and also understanding the value of what we’re doing in that moment to my daughter’s development. But it feels a bit tenuous. I’m making something up to justify what I’m doing. Is there a better way of appreciating play with children?

Dr. Brown:    [37:44]

That’s a good question. I think the child varies. Again, I’ve mentioned grandchildren, and for some of them the kinds of bantering or mutual storytelling. For one of my grandkids, he couldn’t be more bored if I started doing that. For him, play is body play; you throw a ball with him and you’re having a good time. Tell a story to him and he’s bored out of his mind. Even though the story, I think, is really good.

Jen:    [38:12]

Well, yeah, if you made it up!

Dr. Brown:  [38:17]

So – in adults – worldwide, most play that occurs spontaneously is mixed age free play among kids. It isn’t adult to kid play. We have a lot of that in our culture and you know what I think about vacations with my kids when they were younger, if we went to the beach or did skiing or did some things together, that was great, but individual game play for example, it didn’t work too well in my family, but some families, my brother’s family for example, game play is great; I’ve got a cousin whose kids play great games together, so it’s individual.

Jen:     [39:00]

Okay. So it’s about finding something that works for your family, then.

Dr. Brown:    [39:04]

Sure! I mean, the fact that you’re not really turned on by mutual imagined play, it’s fine!

Jen:    [39:10]

She likes it, though.

Dr. Brown:    [39:13]

Well, you know, limit it then, so you don’t get too bored.

Jen:     [39:17]

Okay. And she’s not going to turn into a mass murderer. Are you promising me though?

Dr. Brown:   [39:21]


Jen:    [39:21]


Dr. Brown:   [39:23]

Just the opposite. It doesn’t take that much play for it to have really useful payoffs.

Jen:   [39:32]


Dr. Brown:    [39:33]

You know, it’s pretty amazing. One of the advisers to the National Institute for Play had just a horribly difficult childhood alcoholic parents, Black inner city Philadelphia, really, tough, poverty-laden, you know, awful childhood that he found a way to get to the playground and play regularly and he has had a remarkable life and he says very vividly himself that those moments of playground salvaged his life, and I think he’s right.

Jen:   [40:06]

Okay. So I guess as a take home from that, then I don’t have to do it all the time or whenever she wants to do it, you know, if I do it sometimes then it’s not the end of the world.

Dr. Brown:    [40:19]

It’s not the end of the world. And I think they pick up on whether you’re really enjoying it or not. If you’re sort of pseudo-playing they’re going to feel that; Kids are pretty good at picking up parents’ emotions.

Jen:   [40:31]

Yeah. Yeah. And when you were describing kind of the mixed-age play, that’s a more natural thing in many societies. It reminded me of an outing that I took this weekend with some friends and we just took a bunch of kids down to a mud flat at low tide and with some shovels and waders and let them have at it and it was genuinely fun. I can interact with her and the other children and or I could withdraw a little bit and just talk to the parents while the children interacted by themselves. And that really was genuinely fun to me. And so it seems as though though doing more of those kinds of things would be beneficial too.

Dr. Brown:   [41:07]

Great examples. Right on. Good for you.

Jen:   [41:12]

Okay. So we’ll be talking more about those kinds of outings in the future. episodes on play outdoors. So as we wrap up here, I just want to think about what advice you might have for parents who want to take stock of their own ability to play, and maybe play a little bit more than they do right now, perhaps not all of that being played with children, but just for themselves for their own sake.

Dr. Brown: [41:36]

Very very very important because if the adult parent isn’t really free to play themselves, they’re not going to give visceral permission to their kids to play and as a matter of fact they are often going to be defended against that, so I think it’s really an important public health issue for everyone to take a look at their own play life, and if they have suppressed it or if they just don’t play much as adults – too much mortgage to pay; too many demands. Take a look at your life and play belongs as a priority in everyone’s life doesn’t mean you have to spend 80 percent of your time playing. It just means that to get into that freedom, that voluntary definition that I described at the beginning of the podcast, that you find that if you haven’t got access to that, how come? What was an early memory where you really and can you connect that emotion of that memory to something in your current life now and then let it happen. Particularly important for adults, and it’s really important, I think for the whole process of ongoing intimacy between partners, play and intimacy, go together. Play and love go together.

Jen:    [42:59]

Yeah, you’re actually reminding me of something that someone said at my wedding when they were looking around at couples who had stayed together. It was literally the couples who played together stayed together because they enjoyed spending time together doing the same things.

Dr. Brown:   [43:15]

Right. And you know, that evolves with time. We’re different as we age, we don’t all…You have to kind of adapt and do things that work for each of you again, it may not be the same.

Jen:    [43:27]

Yeah. Which is not to say you have to do everything together. My husband and I certainly don’t do, but there needs to be some kind of overlap of interest.

Dr. Brown:   [43:35]


Jen:    [43:36]

Yeah. Okay. Well thank you so much for helping us to understand not only the benefits of play for children but also in our own lives. I think that’s been a really key take-home for me from this and I’m going to try and play some more in the future.

Dr. Brown:   [43:49]

Good for you, Jen – I’m glad to hear that.

Jen:    [43:51]

So I want to wrap up by reminding you that Dr. Brown’s book Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul, can be purchased in local bookstores or on Amazon. And all the references for today’s show can be found at yourparentingmojo.com/play


Also published on Medium.

About the author, Jen

Jen Lumanlan (M.S., M.Ed.) hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast (www.YourParentingMojo.com), which examines scientific research related to child development through the lens of respectful parenting.


  1. Megan on February 15, 2018 at 1:09 AM

    Another great episode! I guess I’m embarrassed to admit I might be one of *those* adults, but I’m still not completely clear on what ‘play’ is for grownups, aside from rough-housing or digging in the sand ourselves. Looking forward to clarifying my understanding of this in future episodes. Keep up the great work!
    (Feel totally free to delete this comment if it’s not the most appropriate place for this feedback!)

    • Jen Lumanlan on February 19, 2018 at 9:25 PM

      Megan, I think “play” for adults is whatever you find fun! That might be rough-housing and digging in the sand, but it might also be cooking or reading or playing video games or mountain biking. In an ideal world, your “play” and “work” will significantly intersect…LMK if you have any other questions!

  2. Amy Cox on October 19, 2018 at 1:29 PM

    Just found your site and podcast. Really enjoyed this episode. I have 4 kids, ages 7 girl, 3.5 yo b/g twins and a 15 mo old. It is hard to play with them. I tried to do 10-15 mins of individual “mommy time” but it was chaos. If i try to sit with one child to play the others get jealous and chaos again. So, I just don’t play and it bothers me. Any tips on managing play with multiple kids?

    • Jen Lumanlan on October 23, 2018 at 3:25 AM

      Hi Amy – that definitely does sound challenging! Part of it is likely that you are trying something new and they’re protesting the change – if it were to become more of a routine, there would likely be less protestation. Do you have support around you who could take some of the children (partner, neighbors, children’s friends…) while you spend quality time with one of them – even if it’s just a short walk around the neighborhood? You can make this easier on yourself by not just thinking of “play time” as quality time: time spent cooking dinner together or doing laundry together is quality time too if you’re chatting and laughing and playing and enjoying each other’s company. Hope this helps…

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