Founder of National Institute for Play gives keynote address on play’s role in education
Playtime may seem like a childhood recess memory, but to Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play, play is serious business – for both children and adults.
Brown gave a keynote address entitled “Play: The Key to Engagement and Making Learning Fun” hosted by the Academy for Teaching and Learning Excellence Nov. 12 in the Stella Boyle Theater.
Brown himself is a dynamic man who practically sprinted from one side of the stage to the other during his lecture. Though his hair is white and thinning, his eyes are lively and his smile lends an element of youth to his face.
Brown earned his medical degree from the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. He served as a medical officer in the Navy and also has experience with psychiatry and research.
In addition to founding the National Institute for Play, a nonprofit organization that seeks to understand and promote the benefits of play, Brown wrote a book entitled “Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul.”
“I don’t think you can be fully human if you don’t include play as a regular part of your existence,” he told the crowd.
About 100 people attended Brown’s lecture, which utilized a slideshow of photos and videos. The lecture began with a video of a cat and owl playing together; the cat batted at the owl, which swooped low to cuff it with its wings. This and other animal videos were a big hit with the crowd, which was overcome with giggles and cuteness-induced sighs.
The animal footage illustrated the universality of play among mammals – something that Brown discovered while working with the National Geographic. One series of photos showed a hungry polar bear stalking a tethered husky dog. In a move Brown described as “genius or very myopic,” the dog fell into the “play bow” known to most dog-lovers, and, miraculously, the would-be prey became the bear’s playmate.
The National Institute for Play has distinguished several types of play, one of which is attunement play. This happens between a baby and his or her mother when they lock eyes and share a smile.
“This is a moment of joy but also kind of a moment of nonsense,” Brown said. “For infants, this is where the most rapid development of emotional stability and resilience begins and, if it doesn’t happen, the results can be quite dramatic.”
Other kinds of play include body play and movement, object play, social play, imaginative and pretend play, storytelling-narrative play, and transformative-integrative and creative play.
By playing, children learn how to manipulate their bodies and objects – skills that gain importance as they grow older, especially in occupations like dancing and engineering.
Brown’s interest in play began in an unlikely way: he was investigating the motivation behind the 1966 University of Texas Tower shooting, in which Charles Whitman killed 17 people. Brown found that Whitman was raised in an abusive household in which his overbearing father severely suppressed Whitman’s childhood play – a suppression that left him unable to cope with the stress that preceded the shooting.
“Play began to take on a little different character to me then,” Brown said.
After that case, Brown interviewed living people convicted of murder and found similar cases of play deprivation.
This phenomenon is also evident in the animal kingdom, he said. Young rats that were isolated during their most playful period and then reintroduced to the rat community had a more difficult time coping with stress and relating to other rats, he said.
Play deprivation can lead to things like rigidity, joylessness, diminished curiosity and addiction, Brown said. “You don’t need escapism nearly as much when you’re play-saturated,” he said. He added that play also improves interpersonal relationships.
“Play behavior presents an antidote to our otherwise inevitable hostilities toward each other,” he said.
By learning the “language of play,” Brown said, people learn nonverbal cues and cooperation. “So much human trust and confidence comes from these types of signaling,” he said, pointing at a picture of playing lions.
Social play includes what Brown calls “rough-and-tumble play” and what gym teachers typically call “roughhousing.” Though it can seem aggressive, Brown said that it is not and, in fact, teaches children empathy and compassion.
“Empathy is learned best in the halls of play early,” he told the crowd.
Brown was quick to point out that bullying is not play, however. “Bullying is domination. It’s cruel, and it’s an entirely different subject,” he said.
Play can also make teaching more fruitful and innovative. By understanding their playing types, educators can bring more of their essence into their work, Brown said. Player types fall into archetypal categories like explorative, creative, communicative and narrative and often manifest during childhood. A person with a tactile play type, for example, could be an engineer who loved building blocks as a child. Teachers who are in touch with their play personalities will have greater teaching outcomes, Brown said.
So for those who may rush despondently from one task to another, Brown presents a happy hippo doing a back flip in the water for both bliss and brain growth and asks, “When was the last time you were in that state of being?”