Tuesday, March 6, 2012

On the importance of play: Something we should all be worried about...

Don't call it a comeback!

It's been a long time, but I finally have a new blog post. This post is largely a review of the book, Play:How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul” by Stuart Brown, M. D. 

Play is an interesting and revealing popular science book that reviews emerging scientific evidence about play and the applied significance of these findings in everyday life. Although I think this book could have been more critical and scientific in its approach to the subject matter, I think it is an important book to read because play is a topic of burgeoning scientific inquiry, and Brown (2009) makes an excellent case for the evolutionary, social, existential, and even economic value of play.

For instance, in the 1990s, the National Air and Space Administration (NASA) found that newer engineers had difficulty with working in ambiguity and creative reasoning compared to older engineers, despite excellent marks in college and superb research backgrounds. One of the surprising things they found, informed by psychological studies of the relationship between unstructured play and creativity, was that new engineers lacked experience with physical systems compared to abstract knowledge of these systems learned through readings and lectures. Thus, although these highly qualified engineers had significant understanding of the academic details of the propulsion, shielding, or control systems they were working on, they had not “tinkered”, they had not worked with their hands nearly as much as engineers from the previous generation. NASA now includes questions about play history and hands-on mechanical experience in hiring their employees.

Another example comes from the world of business. Google, a company whose influence in information technology continues to grow, has a unique business practice referred to as “20% time,” which means that engineers are allowed to spend 20% of their paid time working on personal projects. Ideally, the engineers are working on projects they are truly passionate about, but importantly these are projects without deadlines and without direction from a supervisor. Google has had tremendous success with this practice and some of Google’s largest innovations are the result of employees pursuing their personal interested during 20% time. Gmail, for instance, is the direct result of 20% time and is one of the most used email services in the world.

Brown (2009) uses anecdotes like this to make strong claims about the role of play in learning and performance, supporting these anecdotes with more scientific, empirical studies of play in humans and animals. But before venturing into personal and historical accounts, psychological or neuro-scientific studies, it is important to answer a few questions. What is play? Why is it important? Brown prefaces his definition of play by saying that defining play is like explaining a joke, “it takes the joy out of it (p. 16).” To a certain extent, I agree with him on this point. After all, play is etiologically a very old behavior making it largely pre-verbal or pre-conscious with respect to our other human abilities. Also, there is tremendous individual variation in what constitutes play. One person might feel “at play” when laboring in front of a computer solving problems with bits of code, parsing complicated error messages, and revising until the program they have been struggling to write finally works. Somebody else (or indeed even the same person!) might feel “at play” climbing rocks a few hundred up on a cliff face, suspended only by their fingers and a kernmantled nylon rope. It is difficult to find a useful definition of play that can incorporate such a wide array of activities. Just using these two examples of computer programming and rock climbing though, we can reason two important conclusions. First, play is not the opposite of work and second, that play is not a lack of structure.

Sitting in front of a computer for hours and solving complex mathematical problems is as much a cognitive labor as scaling a cliff face with burning muscles and bleeding fingers is a physical labor. Clearly one cannot say that these activities are only work or only play, they are made up of a little of both. From a sociological perspective, I think this is a tremendously important point. I feel that as a society, we undervalue the repetitive and laborious nature of what we might traditionally define as “work”. We have, not without reason, elevated the status of inventors, innovators, and geniuses, but it is important to recognize that the creative, playful aspects of innovation are made possible by the determined, work-like aspects. Brown (2009) goes into great detail about this work-play balance and focuses especially on how people can recognize when they are out of balance, and the steps they can take to find balance again. What this distinction reminded me most of, however, was my personal experience with backpacking. For most people, backpacking would be classified as play. Certainly, most of us are not paid to do it, but backpacking also entails no small amount of work. Relatively little time is actually spent atop some picturesque vista. The vast majority of the experience is spent laboriously slogging your way up a steep slope with 15+ kgs of gear strapped across your shoulders, step after step, hour after hour. A tremendous amount hiking (work) goes into the brief experience of bagging the peak (play).

Similarly, although there may be a naïve conception of play being a completely unstructured activity without rules, this criterion quickly evaporates as well. Within a programming language, there are rules and constraints about what you can do and can’t do. These constraints can actually contribute to making the situation feel playful. There is something satisfying about circumventing a limitation of the program you are working with, finding a creative way to get around the structure of a language, or hacking a piece of hardware or software to make it work the way you want. In rock climbing, the same rules apply. There is a tremendous amount of structure that goes into climbing and very rigid rules that ensure the safety of the participants. As Brown (2009) points out, this feeling of safety is intrinsic to separating play from other activities. Indeed, without a ropes, gear, and structure, rock climbing would be an act of survival rather than play. Even in less salacious examples, safety is what allows play to be exploratory. For instance, the success of Google’s 20% time is in part attributable to the fact that employees know that they will be paid for this time regardless of the results. If payment was contingent on the success of an idea, employees probably would not be using this free time to explore creative ideas or personal passions, but would instead be trying to exploit an existing project that is a “sure-thing”. Thus, rules and structure, and the safety that results, provide a stable base of support for exploratory and playful behaviors.

So, if play and work are not opposites, and play is not the absence of structure, what is play? Many years of sociological theorizing and scientific definitions are summarized rather quickly by Brown (2009) in his second chapter to answer this question. But in this summary, he does generate a very useful framework for delineating play from other activities, although not necessarily a seamless definition. Brown focuses on six criteria that he feels, based on a range of evidence (from the more empirical to the more anecdotal) delineate play from other behaviors. First, play has apparent purposeless. This is not to say that play has no purpose, but it does not have a readily apparent purpose in the moment. For example, rock climbing serves a purpose if you are an explorer, a soldier, or a person stranded at the bottom of a cliff, but recreational climbers go many miles out of their way to find crags to climb in and spend lots of money on gas and equipment in order to pursue their sport. Thus, climbing has some purpose, probably the internal, pleasurable sensations that arise during/after climbing, but that purpose is not immediately apparent. This apparently purposelessness has also been phrased as a “means over ends” disposition in research on child development (Rubin, Fein, & Vandenberg, 1983). Secondly, play is largely voluntary. For an action to be playful, it is generated by the individual and not demanded by the environment (i.e., working on some code because you want to, not because your boss has come round and told you what you work on). This does not mean that play cannot arise during involuntary activities. Indeed, when people are forced to do repetitive tasks, I think they seek out opportunities to play, within the limits of the task, in order to break the tedium. For instance, while splitting logs, I might compete against myself for time, sing to myself, or try to split particular sections of specific dimensions. Thirdly, play has inherent motivation. Brown argues that people and animals do not play based on the promise of extrinsic rewards, but in order to fulfill some internal drive. These drives could be evolutionary or social in origin, but Brown argues they are always endogenous.

From subjective reports, play often involves a distorted perception of time. When engaged in play, human beings report paradoxical perceptions of time in which moments feel longer than normal, but the duration of the activity itself feels like it passes much more quickly than normal. I do not personally find this piece of evidence very compelling as a defining characteristic of play because it is based on self-reports after the playful event is over. That said, however, I would introspectively report the same phenomenon, but it I think that distorted perception of time, whether real or illusory as a finding, is actually a result of Brown’s (2009) fifth criterion which is diminished self-consciousness. In playful activities, people lose a certain degree of self-awareness. This can be demonstrated not only through introspection and self-report, but it has been demonstrated experimentally as well. In a study of baseball batting performance, for example, Rob Gray found that when experts where doing better their awareness of how they were moving (i.e., where the bat was at ball contact) was significantly worse than when they were batting poorly, where self-awareness was found to be significantly higher. Finally, Brown suggests a sixth criterion for play that is continuation desire; once an individual is engaged in a playful activity there is strong desire to continue. Again, I don’t necessarily agree with this criterion or see its utility in defining play. Physical play, for instance might continue until everyone involved is tired at which point play stops and there is no desire to continue. Does this mean that the participants have not actually been playing? Of course not. While I agree that during play there might be a strong desire to continue the activity, I do not feel this is a distinguishing feature of play.

Having established a framework, if not a definition, for identifying what play is, we can turn our attention to why do humans and animals play? There is probably no single reason for playful behavior, because play emerges in many forms. However, sociologists, psychologist, and neuroscientists have identified a number of plausible social, psychological, and biological benefits of play. These benefits have likely been selected for either culturally or biologically through evolution. Ethologists have often put forward the “play as practice” theory of play behavior. This theory suggests that animals have an innate drive to play in order to practice behaviors that are evolutionarily advantageous. For instance, young antelope will explore their environment as the herd moves into new areas, staying close to the herd, but venturing around the periphery. This exploratory behavior does not appear to be very systematic, but more playful in nature. The young antelope bound over rocks, jump onto tree trunks, and chase each other around the new environment. Ethologists have speculated that such exploratory behavior serves many beneficial functions. First, the physical activity can cause tissue growth and physiological adaptation to improve joint strength, muscle strength, and cardiorespiratory fitness. Second, neural adaptation can occur as the antelope learns new, coordinated patterns of movement. Indeed, there is neurological evidence that in young antelope the greatest periods of play are associated with the most rapid growth of the cerebellum, compared to other times during the life span (Byers & Walker, 1995). Thirdly, exploration of the new environment might help the young antelope create a richer spatial map of their surroundings, allowing the animal to better orient itself to the environment, or even learn “escape routes” through the environment in case a predator emerges. There is also evidence from rodent studies to suggest that exploratory play improves neural development, whereas a lack of play slows development (Panskepp, Siviy, & Normansell, 1984).

Social play in rats with frontal lobe lesions has also been shown to reduce their impulsivity, which raises interesting questions about the incorporation of play behavior in the treatment of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Potentially, encouraging certain types of play behavior might be useful for reducing the symptoms of impulsivity in children with ADHD. Neuropharmacological studies in rats however, show that many of the modern drugs used in the treatment of ADHD in humans actually reduce the expression of play behavior in rats (Siviy & Panskepp, 2011). Thus, although there is clearly a relationship between play behaviors and impulsivity in both humans and rodents, it is not clear if encouraging playful behavior is useful for reducing impulsivity in other aspects of behavior.

Furthermore, play behaviors are a useful indicator of animal welfare because play behavior generally disappears under stress (Held & Špinka, 2011). There are caveats to this interpretation of play as an indicator of welfare because play can increase in response to reduced parental care or temporarily increase in response to social isolation. Play as an indicator of welfare in animals is also interesting because play has long been an indicator of psychological well-being in human children, and play inhibition is a symptom of clinical depression (Lous, de Wit, De Bruyn, & Riksen-Walraven, 2002).

In humans, and possibly other social animals, play also serves unique the function of allowing us to work through social problems without having to experience these problems directly. Sociologists and anthropologists have suggested this cultural role for play in human children, and even adults, for a long time (Sutton-Smith, 2001). Imaginative play allows children to take on imagined social roles and thus create, solve, and learn from imagined social conflicts without suffering real consequences from their decisions. For instance, young children playing “house” or “doctor” allows them to work they problems they perceive adults facing (correctly or incorrectly) and collaboratively arrive at a solution (in joint-imaginative play) or to talk through possible solutions in their own mind (in isolated-imaginative play).

Physical play allows children the same benefits as physical play in other animals, such as improved musculoskeletal fitness, cardiorespiratory fitness, and neural development as the motor system learns to coordinate new movement patterns. Physical play can also serve a social function, however. Physical play can allow for social disputes to be resolved or hierarchies to be established while reducing the physical harm to the individuals involved. An excellent demonstration of this point comes from the history of the Olympic Games. During the ancient Olympic Games, the city-states of Greece would declare a military truce and suspend all armed conflict against each other. This truce was recognized even during major conflicts, leading to a cessation of hostilities between Athens and Sparta during the Peloponnesian War, and was thus a respected part of ancient Greek culture (Kyle, 2007).

Object-based play allows both children and adults to explore an object’s potential, often with reduced consequences (although “playing” with a table saw is just as dangerous as using it). Object-based play thus allows children to learn about an object’s common functions but also unintended or “inappropriate” uses. In this way, object play is an important way for children to gather information about the material world (Pellegrini & Bjorklund, 2004). Object play is, however, perhaps one of the most difficult forms of play to describe because it hard to disambiguate true play from other object-based interactions. Some studies of object play in human and chimpanzee juveniles suggest that their reliable gender differences in object play. Males tend to use more utilize objects in imaginative and physical play as group. Conversely, females tend toward more constructive play with objects and are more likely to engage in solitary play than males (Rubin et al, 1983). Rather than an inherent or genetic interpretation of these data, however, many authors suggest that these gender differences in object manipulation reflect ontogenetic adaptations related to the perceived demands of adult life (Pellegrini & Bjorklund, 2004).

In summary or these studies of the various types of play, we can see that play in childhood is especially important in the processes of development and evolution, because play allows the exploration of new strategies and behaviors. During play these new behaviors can be developed with minimal costs or, at least, reduced cost compared non-play situations (consider rock climbing for sport versus survival). Thus, play influences the development of new strategies and behaviors preparing an animal for success in novel environments after the juvenile period (Pellegrini, Dupuis, & Smith, 2007).

In his book, Brown (2009) does not spend as much times developing the scientific exploration of play as I would like, but one of the strengths of Brown’s book is to illustrate the importance of play not only during the juvenile period, where most research is focused, but across the lifespan. By pulling in personal anecdotes from his career as a psychiatrist, and more famous examples from current events and history, Brown argues a compelling case for the importance of play for all people of all ages in order to be psychologically healthy life. Brown argues that play has demonstrable advantages in cognition, physical health, and psychological well-being. Research in children and animals suggests that play is a natural mechanism for learning and solving problems. A good example of how imaginative play is given in an anecdote about executives at the design company Ideo who, when confronted with a difficult design problem, pretend to be their competitors (in a very literal and role-playing sense) in order to look at the problem in a different light. The advantages of play for physical health are fairly straight forward; play can serve as a motivator to make physical activity more endogenously motivating than “training” which relies on external motivation. Finally, Brown uses a number of case studies from his career as a psychiatrist to demonstrate being deprived of play can have detrimental effects on person’s psychological well being.

One of the more convincing case-studies that Brown (2009) presents demonstrates all three of these points at once. Brown presents the story of Gillian Lynne, who is now a very wealthy and respected choreographer, former Ballerina, actor, director, and holds the honorific title, “Commander of the Order of the British Empire” (CBE). As a child, Gillian had a tremendous amount of difficulty in school. She had difficulty paying attention in class and frequently caused disruptions because she struggled with staying seated behind a desk. As her school difficulties grew worse, Gillian’s parents took her to a psychiatrist to see if their daughter had some sort of behavioral disorder. Fortunately for Gillian, rather than recommending removing her from school or giving her some sort of medication, as this was prior to the establishment of ADHD as psychological disorder, the psychiatrist recommended that Gillian’s parents enroll her in a specialized school for the performing arts where she was able to study acting and dance. In this less physically constraining environment, Gillian flourished. Rather than being considered a problem child, as she had been, Gillian become one of the star students. After graduating from school, Gillian gained acclaim as a ballerina with the Royal Opera House and went on to become a choreographer for the Royal Opera House, the Royal Shakespeare Company, and is perhaps best known for her choreography in the Andrew Llyod Weber musicals Cats and The Phantom of the Opera.

Gillian’s story may not be typical, but I think it does a very good job of demonstrating the importance of allowing play into a person’s life and recognizing that work and play are not opposing, but complementary activities. Had Gillian not been allowed to explore her more physically playful nature as a child, it is unlikely she ever would have gone on to find the success that she did. In this way, Brown (2009) demonstrates that play is not merely a speculative “feel-good” topic for finding some measure of existential happiness. Instead, play is an area of serious scientific research and play can have profound impact on a person’s physical health, psychological health, and indeed financial success. In conclusion, I can most succinctly say that I would recommend reading this book for its scientific and its practical merits.

Byers, J. A. & Walker, C. 1995. Refining the motor training hypothesis for the evolution of play. American Naturalist, 146, 25-40.
Brown, S. (2009). Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul. London: Penguin Books Ltd.
Kyle, D. G. (2007). Sport and spectacle in the ancient world. Oxford, England: Blackwell Publishing.
Lous, A. M., de Wit, C. A. M., De Bruyn, E. E. J. & Riksen-Walraven, J. M. 2002. Depression markers in young children’s play: a comparison between depressed and nondepressed 3- to 6-year olds in various play situations. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 43, 1029-1038.
Panksepp, J., Siviy, S. M. & Normansell, L. 1984. The psychobiology of play: theoretical and methodological perspectives. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 8, 465-492.
Pellegrini, A. D., & Bjorklund, D. F. (2004). The ontogeny and phylogeny of children’s object and fantasy play. Human Nature, 15, 23-43.
Pellegrini, A. D., Dupuis, D. & Smith, P. K. 2007. Play in evolution and development. Developmental Review, 27, 261-276.
Rubin, K. H., Fein, G.  & Vandenberg, B. (1983). Play. In E. M. Hetherington (Ed.),  Socialization, personality, and social development (pp. 693-774). New York: Wiley.

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