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Our View: The value of play




The kids are back in school. Summer vacations have been taken. Play time is over, right? 


Perish the thought. 


Americans, in particular, have always given play short shrift. The American Dream, after all, is built on the premise we can achieve only through determination and hard work. In fact, there are few things we champion more than the "good old American work ethic." This idea is affirmed when comparing average vacation time for workers in the U.S. to those in other industrialized nations, where time off from work is often double, even triple, that found in the U.S. 


But in our desire to live up to this American ethos, we risk achieving the wonderful and many benefits that come from play. 


The idea that play could actually have some benefits to socialization or cognitive development is a fairly recent concept.  


One of the leading authorities on play is Dr. Stuart Brown, who came to the study in an unlikely manner. Brown was researching murderers -- ¬≠one of his first subjects was University of Texas mass murderer Charles Whitman --and found that one of the common threads in killers' stories was a lack of play in childhood.  


Over the years, Brown has conducted thousands of interviews to catalog people and their relationships to play. His book, "Play" suggests a strong correlation between success and play.  


With support of the National Geographic Society and famed anthropologist Jane Goodall, Brown has observed animal play in the wild, where he first conceived of play as an evolved behavior vital to the health and survival of animals, especially those of higher intelligence. Now, through his organization, the National Institute for Play (, he hopes to expand the study of human play and encourage people everywhere to enjoy and participate in play throughout life. 


In age when children as young as 3 or 4 are playing games on cellphones and video game stations, solitary diversions, we wonder if our future generation's ability to live and understand one another is being compromised. 


And even to the extent today's children are permitted to 'be children," the idea of play is quickly co-opted by the Puritan ideal that hard work is what matters and play is merely a means to promote the virtues of work. For that reason, as children grow up, the play moves from unstructured exploration to competition. There is nothing inherently wrong about competitive sports, of course. From these, the virtues of teamwork and perseverance and character are honed. Through competition, we learn that there are winners and losers in life. 


If the role of play takes on a more serious tone as a child grows up, the notion of adult play is viewed with even greater suspicion. 


Experts such as Brown are beginning to discover that play continues to perform an important role in life, regardless of age. 


After all, at what age does a person no longer have a need for novelty or pleasure or discovery? 


The old adage, "all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" should not be constrained by age. In fact, studies show that people who continue to be actively engaged in mental and physical activities as they grow older lead longer, healthier, happier lives. 


Adult play can range from reading to puzzles to music to theater, dancing, painting, gardening, cooking, hiking -- anything that stimulates mind and body. 


The best blessing any of us can have is to find a passion for something that we cannot monetize, something we do simply for the unadulterated joy of it, something that can remain pure and incorruptible. 


Yes, we all must work, it is true. 


But give up play? 


What a dismal world it would be without play. And what sad people we would be without it, too.



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