Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Response: Stuart Brown's Play

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

I have long noticed that when I am flat I become obsessed by Getting Things Done. The dishes, the floors and the dinners become important and difficult and time consuming and I find it hard to enjoy my children or anything else. The old adage suggests that all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy – but they are not in opposition. I find that when I regularly engage in play, I work better and life goes rather more swimmingly. The jobs get done quickly, my kids are delightful, and I find the time to play even more. I recently read a book which, rather gratifyingly, supports my observations: Stuart Brown’s Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul suggests that the opposite of play is not work, but depression.

The triggers for depression, of course, are another thing. Our society’s frenzied and selfish pursuit of financial success and personal happiness is a major trigger; so are the self-help books which encourage these twin and very tedious foci, and Play toes the party line. According to the blurb, ‘our ability to play through life is the single most important factor in determining our success and happiness’, which suggests to me that Play is designed to be picked up at the airport and read on the plane by middle management. As a result, many claims in the book are justified by the suggestion that they might increase one’s marketability, profit margin and, of course, happiness – whatever that is.

It would irritate me more but for my many crappy experiences of work which suggest that middle management has much to learn about how to set up interesting, rewarding and effective workplaces, and if Play will help them with that task, then it has my blessing. In any case, being pitched at middle management makes it a quick and easy read. Meanwhile, those of us not in middle management who are willing to overlook the success-and-happiness formula (and a few gross generalisations, such as which are playful thus creative countries) will find many interesting and salutary points.

Brown has studied play for many decades, and this book outlines his understanding of the nature of play, its necessity to human health and development, and the benefits of a playful approach to the whole of one’s life. An activity not just for children, Brown defines play as a state of mind: ‘an absorbing, apparently purposeless activity that provides enjoyment and a suspension of self-consciousness and sense of time’. Thus it might range from filling in the cryptic crossword to kicking a ball to going for an aimless wander. Play is vital because it is in this unconscious absorption we tune into the world and are freed from our limitations; and it provides an outlet for our deepest most creative selves.

As a result, Brown claims that people who play are more creative, energetic and insightful; they are better at solving problems and negotiating difficulties and conflicts; and they continue to grow intellectually and emotionally.

Of course this is good for the workplace, but it is also good for everything else, and Brown writes convincingly about the importance of play in child development, parenting, marriage and old age, as well as in education and vocational discernment. When so many of us are bogged down in the rat race, it is helpful to be reminded just how invigorating it can be to step out of the rut and play with one’s kids, one’s spouse, one’s friends, one’s neighbours, or even, shock horror, alone.

Brown does not specifically mention meditation, but as I read I found myself reflecting on the relationship between it and play. They are, to me, two sides of a coin, as good play, particularly solitary play, often precipitates in me a meditative stance. For example, letting the busy part of my mind wander through the cryptic crossword can provide the space for deeper insights than simple anagrams.

Much of what Brown says is common sense: of course your marriage is more interesting if you have a playful approach to it; of course playful people are better at solving problems. But sometimes common sense is not so obvious, and our natural desire to play is often suffocated by societal pressures to act ‘grown up’, as if being adult requires that one become stultifyingly dull. Therefore, despite my reservations about the success/happiness paradigm and my dislike of a few generalisations, I recommend Play to you, along with a good game of Scrabble, an evening of parlour games, or a thrilling round of hide and seek.

Parlour Games for Modern Families

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