Posted by: Liz Massey | April 11, 2009

Book review: Play, by Stuart Brown, M.D. with Christopher Vaughan


How many psychiatrists would open a research-based book with a description of their dog at the family ranch?

“I open the (car) door for Jake and he freezes, every sense aquiver … In half a second, Jake is out the door, a blond blur zipping toward the pasture … Jake initiates a free-for-all game of follow the leader. He darts from horse, to person, to dog, to pony, to person and back to horse in an outstanding display of speed, athleticism and pure exuberance … The children squeal with delight and chase after Jake as he does figure eights. The adults are soon whooping and running. Even some observing magpies are caught up in the act, swooping over the melee.”

Such is the nature of the book “Play” by Stuart Brown, M.D. Founder of the National Institute of Play, former clinical director and chief of psychiatry at Mercy Hospital and Medical Center and an associate professor at the University of California-San Diego, Brown calls play “the single most significant factor in determining our success and happiness,” and he means it. His book is a persuasive argument that play is not some childhood leftover, to be outgrown and discarded, but a lifelong necessity for keeping our brains supple and our relationships vital.

Brown identifies several hallmarks of play, to distinguish it from other activities that may look the same but have an entirely different purpose.


  • Is purposeless and done for its own sake.
  • Is voluntary.
  • Possesses an inherent attraction—you don’t play to reach some other end, it is an end in itself.
  • Frees the player from the ordinary consciousness of time passing.
  • Lowers self-consciousness.
  • Holds improvisational potential—at least some outcomes and strategies in play are not pre-determined.
  • Is marked by a distinct desire to continue the playful activity.

Brown does a very good job of explaining, in a very lively, engaging way, why play is a biological necessity for humans. In many animal species, play is a normal behavior for juveniles but not for adult animals. The advanced intelligence of humans, however, makes it imperative that people continue playing throughout life.

“Play” makes a number of important points that artists and other creators will appreciate.

Free play in childhood socializes us and helps us develop self-confidence. As we create games or play old favorites like kickball or hopscotch, we learn what rules make the game fun, which ones can be broken without breaking our relationships, and which rules can be modified to suit the context of the present moment.

Play juices our problem-solving abilities. Early in the book, Brown writes about a recent problem Cal Tech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory faced with its newest crop of young engineers—many were talented and academically distinguished, yet had difficulty creating solutions that required them to take a theoretical insight and put it to practical use. When the managers looked at the backgrounds of JPL’s “old guard” of retiring engineers, they found that many of them had engaged in vigorous hands-on play as children—they were the children who took apart clocks and tried to put them back together again, built soapbox derby racing cars, fixed appliances, etc. The lab shifted its interviewing process to capture which engineering job candidates were oriented towards this sort of playful activity, and this improved their staff’s ability to tackle and resolve tough engineering design challenges.

The arts are not automatically playful. While the “Artist” is one of Brown’s eight play archetypes—overarching categories of types of play people tend to prefer—he also tells the chilling tale of researching the background of Charles Whitman, who killed 14 people and wounded 32 others in a rampage at the University of Texas-Austin’s clock tower in 1966. Brown was asked to serve on a team investigating the incident.

Whitman had almost no opportunity to play freely as a child, Brown asserts, and artistic accomplishments such as learning to playing the piano mainly served to bolster his father’s tyrannical control over his every move. Creative activities, or even something as innocuous as a friendly game of tennis, can lose their playful aspects if done with an end in mind, such as winning or making oneself look good.

The opposite of play is not work, it is depression. Being unable or unwilling to play is a sign of something much more serious than just an attempt to be “serious” or “industrious.” Jokes, games, flirtation, and flights of fantasy breathe life into over-stressed and change-buffeted lives.

Play is the mother of invention—not necessity. Brown aptly points that if necessity were all it took, Polaroid would have invented its way out of the declining consumer market for photographic film once digital cameras made film cameras more or less obsolete. Instead, the company stayed with its staid product line, and eventually declared bankruptcy. Play introduces new, potentially threatening ideas in a sideways sort of fashion, and allows them to be tinkered with until they are ready to be tested in the so-called real world.

Humans are not meant to play 24/7. Being “addicted” to play activities usually signals trouble elsewhere in our psyche—play is just the substance, not the cause. Like other animals who engage in play behaviors, it is unwise to expect to be able to play all the time (unless you want to be a predator’s lunch!), or for play activities to be only pleasurable and never have periods of frustration, tension or setback.

Overall, “Play” is a great book—a science-based book that’s extremely easy to digest and fun to read. It will undoubtedly provide creative persons with new ideas for expanding their play in service of their art, and help them understand play’s importance in living a healthy, well-integrated life, as well.

For more information on Brown’s research into the importance of play, visit the Web site for his National Institute of Play.


  1. […] own bicycles. It echoes a point that author Stuart Brown made in the recently published book “Play”: that an older generation of  engineers at Cal Tech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory had been able […]

  2. […] courtesy of Creative Liberty) Spread the […]

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