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Why do we play?

Why do we play? We play in order to learn:

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

Play creates new neural connections and tests them. It creates an arena for social interaction and learning. It creates a low-risk format for finding and developing innate skills and talents.

How does this work? When something is fun, it commands our full attention and provides an emotional reward, two things that are key to strengthening memory:

Learning and memory also seem to be fixed more strongly and last longer when learned in play. While this can be objectified in animal tests, it is also a reasonable hypothesis for humans based on performance and outcome results in a variety of educational settings. The link between adequate recess time and later higher performance is one finding that appears to support these benefits. This may be because of the total involvement that play often requires. The state of play is one in which attention is focused exclusively on the pleasurable play activity, and memory fixation has been shown to be closely related to heightened attention and emotional rewards. 

Most animals stop playing and learning once they reach adulthood. Humans are unique in that they have the capacity to play all their lives. Why? Nature designed us to be lifelong learners:

The brain can keep developing long after we leave adolesence and play promotes that growth. We are designed to be lifelong players, built to benefit from play at any age. The human animal is shaped by evolution to be the most flexible of all animals: as we play we continue to change and adapt into old age.

And it might be one of the secrets to our success as a species:

Along with our opposable thumbs and massive prefrontal cortex, a singular characteristic of humans is that we stretch our juvenile period out longer than any other creature. Since one of the primary hallmarks of being juvenile is the desire and capacity to play, what would happen if our brains really keep juvenile elements such as growth and adaptability long past the period of our obvious prolonged chldhoods? What if the maintenance of very useful juvenile qualities in the brain is the secret to success in many species — especially ours?

It’s likely that play makes our brains work better:

From the same play histories, I believe that we have anecdotal evidence that with enough play, the brain works better. We feel more optimisitic and more creative. We revel in novelties — a new fashion, new car, a new joke. And through our embrace of the new we are attracted to situations that test skills we do not need now, but may need in the future.

Some of this is speculative but other research points in the same direction. Students who are playful do better in school:

Playfulness was associated with better academic performance (i.e., better grades in an exam). Also, students who described themselves as playful were more likely to do the extra reading that went beyond what was needed to pass the exam. This can be seen as first evidence of a positive relation between playfulness in adults and academic achievement.

Playing video games has been shown to increase creativity, reaction time and even help reduce nightmares.

Playing music has been shown repeatedly to increase intelligence:

After only 20 days of training, only children in the music group exhibited enhanced performance on a measure of verbal intelligence, with 90% of the sample showing this improvement. These improvements in verbal intelligence were positively correlated with changes in functional brain plasticity during an executive-function task.

It may even increase empathy in children:

While not definitive, researchers note that the findings provide “more than tentative support” to their theory that intelligently structured group music-making can promote “day-to-day emotional empathy.”

What’s interesting — and something we often forget as adults —  is it seems we all may need play in our lives:

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

But when play is denied over the long term, our mood darkens. We lose our sense of optimism and we become anhedonic, or incapable of feeling sustained pleasure.

There is laboratory evidence that there is a play deficit much like the well-documented sleep deficit. And just as sleep deficit generates a need for extra “rebound” sleep to catch up, laboratory research shows that animals that are deprived of play will engage in “rebound” play when allowed to do so again. While we don’t have statistical evidence that the same happens in human, anecdotal evidence from parents and teachers, as well as data gathered in many adult play histories I’ve conducted, indicate that humans also feel a much more intense desire to play when when they have gone a long time without it.

Enough reading. If you want to learn more, go play.

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About Eric Barker