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Perhaps you've heard the saying, "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." There's probably more truth to this than most people realize: research indicates that without play, it is hard to give your best at work or at home.

According to the National Institute of Play, “A huge amount of existing scientific research – from neurophysiology, developmental and cognitive psychology, to animal play behavior, and evolutionary and molecular biology – contains rich data on play. The existing research describes patterns and states of play and explains how play shapes our brains, creates our competencies, and ballasts our emotions. The research from these diverse areas of science must be integrated to depict human play mechanisms as a whole. The integration work will reveal critical gaps where additional basic research is required.”

The National Institute for Play

The National Institute for Play was founded by Dr. Stuart Brown. Dr. Brown trained in general medicine, internal medicine, psychiatry and clinical research. He first realized the importance of play when studying a group of homicidal males; he concluded that the absence of play could have dangerous long-term consequences. 

Dr. Brown also became aware that the actual science of play was expanding. At that time, however, the play-related research was disorganized and deficient in measuring factors that were clinically easy to observe. It was apparent to Dr. Brown that a larger and more professional organization was needed. So, in 1996, he established the Institute for Play which was replaced by the National Institute for Play in 2006. The stated goal of this non-profit organization is to “unlock the human potential through play in all stages of life using science to discover all that play has to teach us about transforming our world.” 

To identify the kind of play that would be most meaningful to you, Brown suggests thinking back to the play you enjoyed as a child and trying to connect that to your life now. For example, a person who was very active as a child may be wise to engage in recreational sports as an adult. 

Play has the power to deeply enrich your adult life, if you pay attention to it. Play is a basic human need as essential to our well-being as sleep, so when we’re low on play, our minds and bodies notice. Over time, play deprivation can reveal itself in certain patterns of behavior: We might get cranky, rigid, feel stuck in a rut or feel victimized by life. To benefit most from the rejuvenating benefits of play, we need to incorporate it into our everyday lives, not just wait for that two-week vacation every year.

- Dr. Stuart Brown

The different patterns of play per The National Institute for Play:

  • Attunement Play - When an infant smiles and the mother smiles back, the right cerebral cortex of the brain is engaged in both, their brain waves are in harmony and mutual joy is the result.

  • Body Play and Movement - Play that is associated with exploratory body movements, such as locomotor and rotational activity, this natural spontaneous activity helps bodily coordination as well as molds the brain to be more resilient and ready for the unexpected.

  • Object Play - Playing with different types of objects stimulates the brain to develop more than just manipulative skills. Hand and brain were meant to play together.

  • Social Play - the three subsets are:

  1. Play and Belonging - the urge to play with others and be accepted.

  2. Rough and Tumble Play - necessary for the development of social cooperation, fairness and altruism.

  3. Celebratory Play - shown in the patterns of people gathering at parties, rock concerts, shopping malls, etc.

  • Imaginative and Pretend Play - This type of play is the key to creativity and a young child’s ability to create their own unique senses.

  • Storytelling-Narrative Play - This form of play expands the stream of consciousness. This could be a parent telling a story to a child, a child making up their own pretend story, or stories on and in the media.

  • Transformative-Integrative and Creative Play - This is the kind of play that is fantasy and transcends reality. 

In other words, for our earliest ancestors, play was not just about adding fun to one's life, it may have been a way of keeping the peace (which was critical for survival). Dr. Gray’s perspective is that the freedom to play is of utmost significance in promoting learning in children. Autonomy to direct one’s time and energy without interference, input or judgment from adults is critical to children’s learning.


In fact, learning via play is the only way consistent with human evolutionary history as hunter-gatherers, because play is how children learn to “'make friends, overcome fears, solve problems and take control of their lives.' Therefore, children suffer irrevocable damage to their mental growth, emotional development, and overall sense of well-being when they are denied the chance at free play."

"Consequently, in sharp contrast to hunter-gatherer education, traditional schools in industrialized nations are primarily run on adult direction, barely allowing children any unstructured time. Modern education, unlike play centered learning, promotes competition rather than cooperation because of the importance placed on evaluation of performance in and of schools. In the last half century, the school year as well as day, have grown longer, recess times have grown shorter, evaluation of performance has become more important — all of which have eroded free play time. Sadly, modern schooling has come to overstress résumé building at the expense of anything and everything else in children’s lives. Dr. Gray states that this is to the great detriment of both mental and emotional growth of children. He refers to it as the 'terrible irony,' that education systems, which are meant to prepare students for their future are 'paths to nowhere'."

Play primarily evolved to teach children all kinds of skills, and its extension into adulthood may have helped to build cooperation and sharing among hunter-gatherers beyond the level that would naturally exist in a dominance-seeking species.

- Dr. Peter Gray, Research Professor of Psychology, Boston College 
Free to learn: why unleashing the instinct to play will make our children happier, more self-reliant, and better students for life
importance of play

According to Dr. Gray, the first failing of modern schools is the failure to promote mental growth. Because they fail to promote curiosity, playfulness, and sociability, the environment is not optimal for learning. Any and every type of play (physical, language, exploratory, constructive, fantasy, social) can lead to effective learning because it is “self-chosen and self-directed” and occurs in an “alert, active and non-threatened state of mind.”


School lessons, however, do the opposite by taking away autonomy and adding the stress of competition, overall ruining children’s educative instincts. Dr. Gray makes an insightful point - that traditional schools deny children the basic rights upon which our civilization is based - the right to have a voice in decision-making and the right to have equal opportunities.


Further, he finds that schools are guilty of denying liberty, interfering with development of self-direction, undermining self-motivation, judging learning, interfering with the development of cooperation, inhibiting critical thinking, and reduction in diversity of skills and knowledge.

Dr. Gray depicts the present education system as harmful for children, and proposes that it be replaced by an educational system rooted in the biological basis for optimal learning.


Alternative ways of schooling based on the principal values of children’s autonomy and cooperation (such as the Waldorf, Sudbury, Montessori, Dewey, and Piaget schools) prove that even in industrialized society, the hunter-gatherer model of education can succeed.

Three famous examples of attempts to characterize play:

  • In his classic book Homo Ludens, the Dutch cultural historian Johan Huizinga (1955) summed up his elaborate definition of play as follows: "Play is a free activity standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life as being ‘not serious,’ but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner."

  • In his influential essay, The Role of Play in Development, the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1978) characterized children’s play as activity that is (a) “desired” by the child, (b) “always involves an imaginary situation,” and (c) “always involves rules” (which are in the minds of the players and may or may not be laid down in advance).

  • In an often-referred-to article on play in the Handbook of Child Psychology, Kenneth Rubin and his colleagues (1983) characterized play as behavior that is (a) intrinsically motivated; (b) focused on means rather than ends; (c) distinct from exploratory behavior; (d) nonliteral (involves pretense); (e) free from externally imposed rules; and (f) actively (not just passively) engaged in by the players.

After analyzing these and other attempts to define play, Dr. Gray concluded that essentially all the descriptors of human play used by prominent play scholars can be reduced to these five:

  1. Play is self-chosen and self-directed.
  2. Play is intrinsically motivated - means are more valued than ends.

  3. Play is guided by mental rules, but the rules leave room for creativity.

  4. Play is imaginative.

  5. Play is conducted in an alert, active, but relatively non-stressed frame of mind.

Homo Ludens by Johan Huizinga


References - the Importance of Play

​• National Institute for Play


Our Founder, Dr. Stuart Brown. National Institute for Play.

The Vision. National Institute for Play.

The Science - Pattern of Play. National Institute for Play.

Personal Health and Well Being. National Institute for Play.

The Play Therapy Training Institute.

• Bekoff, M., and Byers, J. A. (Eds.) (1998). Animal play: evolutionary, comparative, and ecological perspectives. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

• Burghardt, G. M. (2011). Defining and recognizing play. In A. D. Pellegrinin (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of the development of play, 9-18. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

• Csíkszentmihályi, Mihály (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper and Row.

• Fagen, R. (1981). Animal play behavior. New York: Oxford University Press.

• Gray, P. (2009). Play as a foundation for hunter-gatherer social existence. American Journal of Play, 1, 476-522.


• Gray, P. (2013). Free to learn: Why unleashing the instinct to play will make our children happier, more self-reliant, and better prepared for life. New York: Basic Books. -

• Huizinga, J. (1955). Homo Ludens: A study of the play-element in culture. Boston: Beacon Press.

• Rubin, K. H., Fein, G. G., & Vandenberg, B. (1983). Play. In P. H. Mussen & E. M. Hetherington (Eds.), Handbook of child psychology, Vol. 4, 693-774. New York: Wiley.

• Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). The role of play in development. In M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, & E. Souberman (Eds.), Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes, 92-104. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Other Recommended Books

Recommended Books on Play
Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul by Stuart Brown, Christopher Vaughan
The Power of Play: Learning What Comes Naturally by David Elkind 


Video - Play
Promise of Play (PBS series by 
The National Institute for Play)
TedTalk: Dr. Stuart Brown,The National Institute for Play, 
on the Importance of Play
Interview with Dr. Stuart Brown,
founder of the National Institute for Play
TedTalk: Dr. Peter Gray - The Decline of Play
TedTalk: Jill Vialet - What Play Can Teach Us
#BRMI2018 - Hennie Fitzpatrick, MD - The Science of Play
Play Therapy Workshop led by Hennie Fitzpatrick, MD - #BRMI2018
Click here for BRMI Advisor Dr. Hennie Fitzpatrick's handout on
How to Take a Play History
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