Book Reading: Play – How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul

Looking back at my blog over the past few months, I’ve done a lot of these “book reading” posts. I really did mean to do some more on other ideas, but I felt I had to get these thoughts out of the way first. So here’s another book reading post, this time about the book “Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul” by Stuart Brown (with Christopher Vaughan).

Kassia Wedekind gave a talk about play in maths where she used some ideas from the book (you can see the video here), but I didn’t realise what the book was until later when she responded to my request for how people define play.

I immediately looked it up in the library and placed a hold on it so I could borrow it as soon as I could. I finished reading it pretty quickly, but I’ve only had the chance to stop and write about it now.

The basic message of the book is that humans are actually wired to play and that play is essential for our survival and wellbeing, both individually and as a species. He doesn’t set out to apply this to education and certainly not maths education, but I have to say I agree with Kassia that it does indeed apply.

The first few chapters describe what play is, and how it seems our brains are built with a need for play, even as adults. The last several chapters talk about applying play to various aspects of our lives including parenting, work and relationships. I will talk about Part One a lot, and then about Part Two a little.

What play is

One of the most interesting and useful bits of the whole book was Brown’s description in Chapter 2 of what play is. He is loath to give a definition, but he does describe a couple of lists of noticeable features that play tends to have. These were really useful both to broaden the scope of what can be called play, and to narrow my focus to the key features.

His first list of features are things you can notice about play and people engaged in it. You can tell someone is playing when you notice most of these things (p17):

  • Play is apparently purposeless: that is, it seems to be done for its own sake and not because it has practical value.
  • Play is voluntary: it’s not required by duty or forced upon you.
  • Play has inherent attraction: it makes you feel good so you want to do it.
  • Play has improvisational potential: there is scope to put things together in new ways, to do things differently and try things out.
  • People who play experience freedom from time: they lose a sense of time passing.
  • People who play experience diminished consciousness of self: they stop thinking about their thoughts or how they look to others or whether they’re making mistakes.
  • People who play have continuation desire: they want to keep going and find ways to make it keep going.

The last three are the aspects that Kassia mentioned in her ShadowCon talk, and at the time they really spoke to me. I really could imagine the times when I had experienced all three of these and they really were playful activities — those activities when you were so engrossed that you missed lunch or turned around to notice ten people watching you that you didn’t know were there. Interestingly, when I have noticed people watching, my play usually stops, or at least turns into more a performance, which isn’t really the same thing.

So those last three just put names to how play already felt to me. What the full list added for me was a description of the sorts of things that might possibly encourage play. It would seem that an activity with potential to choose whether to do it, where there’s no particular performance goal in mind, and where you have scope to try different options, would be the sort of activity where play is possible. On the other hand, an activity that is tightly constrained with a specific goal in mind seems much less likely to produce play without the people involved being brave enough to break the constraints.

The second list presented is a number of stages a player will go through as they play, taken from Scott Eberle. He says that all players may not go through all stages and not necessarily in this order. Still I agree with Brown that it’s still useful.

  • Anticipation: Curiosity and sometimes a bit of anxiety as you think about what will happen when you engage in the play.
  • Surprise: Something new happens or you see something a new way.
  • Pleasure: Usually caused by the surprise.
  • Understanding: Incorporating new ideas into what you know.
  • Strength: Being empowered because you have done something new and succeeded.
  • Poise: Feeling contented and composed.

I particularly like the idea of anticipation. I can feel it when I do a puzzle and I’m investigating the ideas connected to it, getting a growing feeling that something cool is about to appear. And then it happens and it’s a surprise but not a surprise. When I dig into it to understand I feel ready to face something new in the future. That final idea of poise is also a good one. I see it as that quiet feeling of contentment, different from the intense spark of pleasure caused by the surprise, that allows you to feel ready to leap into anticipation once more.

At this point I was in a dangerous place. I could recognise these aspects in myself and my children for activities that I knew already were play, but I hadn’t fully realised the extent of what Brown was trying to achieve here. The thing is, as he says on page 60: “play is a state of mind, rather than an activity.” Chapter 3 really opened my mind to understand that there are many experiences and activities that can be playful – even things that I might consider work. The key is in the state of mind that goes with it.

In this chapter, Brown sets out a list of several “play personalities”. He describes eight types of people based on the sorts of things they prefer to play with, for example, the “creator”, the “storyteller”, the “joker” and the “director”. I’m not sure I agree totally that there is such a thing as a play personality, but I do agree that people would have certain preferences. The key thing I realised reading this is that there was a much wider scope of things that could be called play than I had realised. For example, the “competitor” plays by aiming to win. Their improvisation potential comes from figuring out how to get the furthest or the most within the confines of the rules, and how far they can push themselves. I had never considered this as play at all, since competition usually turns me off completely and makes things feel like work. But reading this I understood where the playfulness was and why a person competing against me may not actually have any grudge against me at all; instead I’m just a part of their game. Another example is a “collector”, who plays by collecting things. Their improvisation potential stems from the choices they make of what is in or out, or how to classify and order the collection of things they have. Again this was a completely new way to look at play for me.

Why play is so good

Brown argues that play is essential to help learn, to be creative and to be happy. He notes how in animals (in particular in bears), play helps them learn social cues that mean they can function successfully in their communities. Without play they can’t test the boundaries of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. In Chapter 4: “parenthood is child’s play”, he outlines many interesting things that children learn through play, not least of which are the physical laws of nature and their own personalities.

The really profound thing I got from the book was the importance of adult play. I have read some things recently saying that play is only appropriate for young children and shouldn’t be encouraged in high school because adults have to work. Brown argues that actually, adults are only capable of surviving work because they are able to infuse play into it. Work is soul-destroying when there is no scope for improvisation, no part of it gives you a choice, and when it focuses entirely on key outcomes you must be assessed against. These are the opposite of the lists of the features of play. On the other hand, given a choice to voluntarily do something, with freedom to try out things and fail, you are uplifted. So in short, making work more playful makes it more fulfilling. Even if you can’t change the constraints of your work, Brown says that allowing play elsewhere in your life will make work better too.

Basically his argument is that as humans we need the opportunity to try new things in a safe environment, and only play allows for this. We need to be able to continue to develop, and play is the catalyst for development. As he says rather harshly on page 73:

When we stop playing, we stop developing, and when that happens, the laws of entropy take over — things fall apart. Ultimately, we share the fate of the sea squirt and become vegetative, staying in one spot, not fully interacting with the world, more plant than animal. When we stop playing, we start dying.

Helping myself and others play

One question that niggles at me is this: if play is a state of mind, then how can I help anyone to play, or even myself? How can I change anyone’s state of mind? It’s a big question, and Brown goes some way to answer it in the final chapter, at least for helping yourself to play. He suggests a few strategies and I think they fall into three main categories what I want to synthesise here:

  • Move: Brown says “motion is perhaps the most basic form of play”. He says that basically most of your cognition and perception are actually encoded into your brain in the first place via movement. Therefore movement has a way of shortcutting all of your cognitive and emotional inhibitions to play. In short, if you want to relearn to play, then move.
  • Be near others who are playing: Brown says several times across the books that one of the best ways to learn to play is to be with a dog, or a toddler. When you see them playing, you often can’t help but join in. I’ve seen it myself at One Hundred Factorial — people relearn to play by being with others who are playing.
  • Find a safe environment: There is nothing more toxic to play (and indeed general wellbeing) than being in an environment where people judge you or where you are afraid to be yourself. In order to be free to play, you need to be free from fear, so you need to find a place where you don’t have to be afraid. Usually for us adults, it has to do with having the right people around us. As he says on page 216: “If people around you cannot learn to understand your need for play, find people who do.”

As a teacher and a team leader, I think these three things tell me a lot about how I can help my students and my staff to play and so be happier and more productive people. I need to work super hard on creating that environment where it is safe. My classrooms need to be places where it’s ok to make mistakes, to try out new ideas, to suck when you do something for the first time. I myself might need to be the person nearby who is playing so that others can see it’s ok and learn how. And I can get my students to move, at the very least to move their hands, to forge that new connection to the fundamental state of play.

All in all, I really enjoyed the book. At times it did slip into the style of a motivational speaker making grandiose claims with references to specific people’s stories. But I still think the points it made are valid points, and it has made me think differently about what play is and where it fits in mine and my students’ life.

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2 Responses

  1. […] to see what influenced my current feelings about maths. In Stuart Brown’s “Play“, he urged me to think about my play history to see what influenced my current feelings and […]

  2. Kassia Wedekind says:

    I love your observations adults and play.

    It particularly makes me think that teachers need opportunities for mathematical play too! Both because I think experiencing the feeing of play and math together is really important for Ts when they’re thinking about what they want for their students and because I think the play process really lends itself to thinking about reasoning and how we figure things out in math.

    Thanks for writing about this and thinking about it with me too. 🙂

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