July 18, 2012

Q&A, Dr. Stuart L. Brown, founder, National Institute for Play

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For our July trend report, “Play As a Competitive Advantage,” we spoke with Dr. Stuart L. Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play and author of Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. Brown trained in general and internal medicine, psychiatry and clinical research, and his years of clinical practice affirmed the need for healthy play throughout the life cycle, not just for children. For instance, his evaluations of highly creative people found that playfulness has been central to their success and well-being. In 2006, Brown founded the National Institute for Play (the successor to the Institute for Play), with the mission “to bring the unrealized knowledge, practices and benefits of play into public life.” A frequent consultant to Fortune 500 companies, Brown discussed with us why play is important in the workplace and beyond and what impedes a healthy play culture.

Why do you see play as so important, something we should all pay attention to?

Most people think it’s something you do when you haven’t got anything better to do, or for kids or it’s trivial. And yet when you look at what play is, it’s something very fundamental for the well-being and development and maintenance of good things within the human spirit and body.

To try and define it a bit, so we are on the same ground when we’re talking about play, I think of it as something that’s done for its own sake. It’s spontaneous; often, it engages a person deeply with whatever it is they’re involved in, and the engagement itself is pleasurable and fun—engagement itself is more important than the outcome. So one has a sense of being lost outside of time and not fully involved with anxiety or self-concerns while being actively involved in play. And this very broad definition applies both to kids and adults.

It is, from my standpoint as a physician and one who’s studied it for a long time, a very necessary aspect toward human well-being, resilience and vitality and optimism, among other things.

Why should companies pay attention to the idea of play?

When you think about a playful employee or even a company that has a positive slant toward, let’s say, a play ethic, you begin to see what play offers. And that is, it offers a sense of optimism and flexibility. It is really the seat of innovative imagination. And in terms of interpersonal involvement, it’s what often fosters cooperation and a sense of teamwork and really provides empathy.

If you look at the roots of play and play behaviors as a scientist looks at it, it really is fundamental to human groups getting along with each other and being able to prepare themselves for things that are unexpected—[for instance,] unexpected economic or market changes. The advantage of a playful person or a playful company process is that they’re much more nimble. They’re able to enter a competitive scene with lightness and with an ability to respond wisely to the challenges.

And if there is otherwise a sense of nonplay, there often is a kind of fixed and rigid and semicompulsive way of problem solving, which can work but doesn’t work nearly as well as if there is this ability to give and take with the circumstances in which the company finds itself.

What are some of the factors preventing more of us from adopting play in the workplace?

I think there is—within the kind of Industrial Revolution heritage—an assembly-line mentality that if you don’t keep the assembly line moving, if you don’t keep having very specific guidelines as to work output, if there isn’t a clock to punch, people aren’t going to get things done. And I think that good management now transcends that.

Yes, it’s important that employees be engaged and care about what they’re doing and feel identified with the work at hand. But when that’s done within a playful process, the output is going to be much higher, their well-being is going to be much improved, the stress management is going to be improved. And generally attrition and some of the other things that companies worry about are minimized if the company is flexible enough to allow a playful attitude to be a part of its managerial ethic.

To get play back, would you say it’s more of a top-down approach? How much should the individual do in the workplace?

I’ve done a lot corporate consulting. And when there is a kind of fear-based attitude in the company—“If I don’t do such and such, I’m going to be fired”—and if that’s the top-down attitude, where there is downsizing without any kind of real preparation or dealing with the individuals as human beings, then I think the ability to be light and playful within a setting like that … doesn’t happen. That’s part of the effect of, shall we say, top-down.

Bottom-up … depends on the company and its products. And I think that this then requires often very careful hiring practices. If the person fits their job description, they can be well-adjusted to the demands that are placed upon them so they can have a lightness about their job and an optimism. And perseverance isn’t something that is just a grinding kind of thing; it’s something that gives a feeling of worth and engagement.

There really are differences in corporate attitudes about playfulness. And intensely hierarchical organizations, where there’s not an egalitarian kind of feeling about the company, often that is anti-play in my opinion and stanches innovation and creativity on the part of the mainline employee.

Are you seeing more companies build time for play into the workweek?

I’d say some are, some are not. Without naming names, the research and development elements of highly technical companies that I’ve consulted with tend to be pretty open to playfulness, because they recognize that if they’re going to get new ideas and new technologies, it requires freedom for their master technicians or their senior R&D people.

There are some other kinds of companies that have attempted to bring a play ethic in that has been embraced heavily by middle management and just below the top. But the top were threatened—needed the bottom line, needed profits—and it was not something that pervaded the company. So there are differences.

The trend in general is toward more openness, toward playfulness, because I think the science of play is becoming better and better known. And the very fact that you’re on the line with me today would indicate to me that the knowledge base about play is getting out there, and it’s going to be more and more a part of a managerial philosophy and implemented into, I hope, most organizations and certainly our educational system.

Do you see companies that think they’re being playful or creating a playful environment but aren’t?

Yes. … I’ve done 6,000 or so individual, detailed personal play histories. And what you find from that is that foosball and ping-pong at noon are not for everybody. And that forced play, in order to fit a kind of stereotype about [what play is], doesn’t work for a lot of people because they have their own personal play style and they have their own personality that has over the years worked for them. And they may be introverts who want to read a novel or collect stamps or do knitting or do something of that sort—they’d be completely lost and engaged in it and renewed—whereas for somebody else that would be total boredom and they wouldn’t enjoy it at all.

The ability to have an individualized profile for yourself that’s fostered by management [where] they understand it’s not the same for everybody is to me a much better way to manage the play stasis than to say, “Look, we’re really great. We’ve got a rec center, we’ve got a ping-pong table, we’ve got foosball, we have a nice little cafeteria where you can pick your food up. We got a garden out there, and it’s wonderful. Now get out there and do it.” No, that doesn’t always work.

So different people have different play preferences, but do you see physical play as being the most beneficial?

Developmentally, if one has been raised in an 80 percent screen time [environment], hasn’t been out in nature a whole lot, hasn’t found a joy in physical activity—which seems to be an intrinsic part of most kids’ growing up—I think they’re going to be somewhat deprived in terms of optimal personal development. And that’s a broad statement, but I think it fits the science of the day.

Three-dimensional movement in space turns on associational circuits in the brain more than screen space does, particularly in young kids. And if that’s missed, I think there is a kind of inability to fully be comfortable with vigorous physical and/or emotionally challenging social games and the like, which to me are an important part of most people’s developmental trajectory.

Have you noticed difference between the generations based on their type of play? What impact do you see that having on the workforce in the coming years?

This is a tough question. Of course, there’s a huge change in kids being involved in cell phones, video games, iPods and the rest, and it is pervasive and not going to go away. So yes, there are huge cultural and personal shifts where technology is second nature for most kids.

I’ve been teaching … a group of Stanford sophomores every fall for 18 years. And interpersonal nuanced communication between students who are meeting for the first time is different now than it was 18 years ago. There is more tendency to text one another than to look at each other and talk. And that takes a while—those nuanced social skills appear to be less well-refined in the contemporary person that has been embedded in technology than they were 15, 20 years ago.

That being said, I have no idea, and I don’t think anybody else does, about the long-term outcome of this. So I’d be way beyond the data and be a curmudgeonly guy if I said, “It’s quite worse now because everybody’s embedded in technology.” There are huge benefits in the information based in the engagement that appears to go on via technology, whether it’s video games, iPod, cell phones, TV.

But from the 6,000 or so play histories I’ve taken, the people who are the most empowered people among that spectrum are those who have been deeply engaged in what works for them that’s playful and have been able to somehow connect that playful nature to their vocational calling, their relationships, their family and within the cultural possibilities of their culture. So I think part of the answer is to stay close to your play nature and don’t get addicted to video games or technology, stay balanced.

Do some cultures encourage play and build it into their lives more than others?

I’m not a world traveler. I’ve done Australia last year for a while. And somehow they seemed to be, from a superficial tourist point of view, open and more playful, for example, than the people were in Seoul or Hong Kong. There are certainly cultural differences. I’m not a sociologist, so all I’ve got is impressionistic activities, and I think those impressions are probably valid.

Within Hong Kong, Seoul and probably Beijing, there’s certainly plenty of playful people. But I think the cultural sanctioning of outdoor play and lighthearted involvement appeared to be the norm in Australia. And I didn’t see that in New York City last week, and the street scenes of New York City are of people who are pretty rushed and moving where they’re going and no eye contact, and maybe their playfulness is confined to a safe space.

I think this is where leaves and three-dimensional space and the blue skies and part of our habitat from which we came needs to be replicated in some form in our contemporary life. And when you’re surrounded by cement and skyscrapers and subway and noise and traffic and rush, rush, and money urgencies, then it is tough, I think, to think as lighthearted and playful as the Australians appear to be.

When play has been suppressed for an extended period, is there generally a rebound time frame for when the benefits of play start to manifest?

Let’s take a woman who was playful, maybe a tomboy as a little girl, and she grows up, her parents say, “You know, you’ve got to act like a lady.” She gives up her usual and customary fun things that were often physical and vigorous, becomes a wife and mother, has an outside job and then cleaning the house on the weekends, and it’s a tough, not very play-laden life. And let’s say at age 40, her kids are old enough and she needs to say to herself, “Oh, I’ve lost my ability to play.”

I think that does happen. If there’s somebody like that, to get back into something that really, really lights their candle takes some time. And it usually takes reflection and the ability to say, “I deserve to be happy; I deserve to find what it is that works for me.” And that this is a priority: “I need this” to be a good spouse, worker, mother, whatever.

I’ve had, as a therapist, a lot of fun bringing people back into what was their own intrinsic play nature and letting them get lighter and have a much better life. It does take time for some folks. Our play nature is in there. It’s in all of us. So tickling it and finding it is often not as tough and can be pretty immediate if we allow it.

What do you see as something we should all pay attention to in regard to play?

If we were to take education, global warming, the economic downturn, there’s a lot of doom and gloom around. And I think that the essence of play and why it’s been retained through evolutionary times is for us to be able to reimagine ourselves and to adapt to a world that is constantly putting new challenges up. For me, this is a fundamental survival driver that’s joyful, that’s in us, and it’s there to risk, to try something novel, to fail and to get back up again and go for it.

It’s tremendously important that that process of being human is allowed to surface and to guide us into a better future. So it’s not trivial. There is really a major need for us to dig into the essence of our humanity and use it to the advantage of our society, our personal selves, our relationships. So I’m very passionate about this.

And what’s very grounding for me is that there is really solid science coming all the way from the deep study of animal play behavior into the current neuroscience and brain imaging that reinforces this overview of play. Play is a separate biological state of being that’s been around for a couple hundred million years and helped us survive over a geologic time. So let’s pay attention to it.

1 Response to "Q&A, Dr. Stuart L. Brown, founder, National Institute for Play"

1 | April Stanly

March 16th, 2014 at 4:57 pm

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Dr. Brown,

I am a Graduate Student studying Recreation Administration at Southern Illinois University and I am interested in your work and would like to speak with you about my potential thesis topic. I am interested in looking at play opportunities or lack there of for female juvenile delinquents ages 14-18. I want to conduct interviews or a survey about opportunities throughout their early childhood in play. I am just now starting to think of ideas and would appreciate your expertise and input.

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