The Power of Play

New research is pointing to something that we already all know is true: play makes us healthier and happier. Dr. Stuart Brown, a researcher on play, gives a fantastic lecture that is featured on the TED website (a small nonprofit devoted to “Ideas Worth Spreading”) reminding us of the scientifically proven importance of play in our loves. As summarized on the website:

humor, games, roughhousing, flirtation and fantasy are more than just fun. Plenty of play in childhood makes for happy, smart adults — and keeping it up can make us smarter at any age.

Watch any human child, and you will see unmistakable evidence of the power and necessity of play. A child deprived of play is not only unhappy, Dr. Brown tells us, but, more importantly, research shows that these children are the most at risk for becoming sociopaths: violent, destructive adults.

As my father notes, a normal child treats playtime the way an adult treats work. For the child, it is of the utmost seriousness to find time to play, to create, to interact, to imagine. We are not the only creatures who need to play – most mammals do. Watch dogs, cats, monkeys, birds, elephants, lions, tigers, bears – oh my! – all creatures seem to need to play. Even our language mimics the naturalness of play: we can “horse around” or get into some “monkey business.” A quick look at synonyms for “roughhouse” on shows the release, the activity, and the freedom associated with play:

caper, caracole, carry on*, cut loose, cut up, dance, fool around, frisk, gambol, go places and do things, horse around, horseplay, monkey around, play, revel, rollick, romp, roughhouse, sport

Play is a purging of emotion, a balancing moment in time, and it frequently leads to laughter, which we all know and studies have shown increases the immune system and overall health and well-being.

My partner and I (with the help of a friend) have recently rescued an elderly adult cat from the pound, and she obviously had little opportunity to play throughout her life. It is painful to watch her as we try to entice her to play. She focuses slightly on the toy, and every so often she becomes interested enough to move toward it and even try to bat it with her paw, but soon enough she loses focus and interest, and her gaze goes somewhat blank again. We hope that with the power of play something within her will wake up and become “vital” again, to use the descriptor Dr. Brown gives to signify the importance of play.

I have to thank a friend of mine for reminding me of the power of play and inspiring me to write this post. In the past year, she was newly diagnosed with thyroid issues and spent a lot of time and money going to every alternative health therapist that she could find to try to turn the situation around. The bottom line, she concluded, after all of this consultation and work, was that she needed to bring more play into her life. Our bodies relax and rejuvenate through play, laughter and movement. How many normal children, allowed to play and laugh throughout the day, have problems with depression, fatigue, or other chronic conditions?

Health professionals tell us: get enough sleep, eat well, take your vitamins, watch your blood pressure, relax, watch your levels of this and that. They could cover all of this by giving us one command: Go out and PLAY! Find the thing you love to do and go do it. Find other people (or animals) who also love it, and frolic and cavort together. It may not move your body as much as the dance of the whirling dervish, but do something that allows you to relax – and enjoy – being alive.

If you have a moment, these two videos are beautiful examples of animal’s instinctive playful natures.
The first is an orangutan that befriended a hound dog. They play beautifully together!–Nature/Unlikely-Friends/An-Orangutan-Bonds-with-a-Hound-Dog-3.html

The second is a deer and a labrador retriever finding ways to play together (while two cats watch). Incredibly cute:

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