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Play, Spirit, and Character
  • Stuart Brown

Play, Spirit, and Character

Who knew that we learn empathy, trust, irony, and problem solving through play — something the dictionary defines as "pleasurable and apparently purposeless activity." Dr. Stuart Brown suggests that the rough-and-tumble play of children actually prevents violent behavior, and that play can grow human talents and character across a lifetime. Play, as he studies it, is an indispensable part of being human.

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  • Stuart Brown

    Stuart Brown

    is founder and president of the National Institute for Play near Monterey, California. He is co-author of Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul.


July 24, 2008

KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: I'm Krista Tippett. This hour, we'll talk about play as an indispensable part of being human. My guest, Dr. Stuart Brown, directs the National Institute for Play. He suggests, for example, that the rough-and-tumble play of children actually prevents violent behavior, that play can grow human talents and character from infancy to adulthood.

DR. STUART BROWN: When one really doesn't play at all or very little in adulthood, there are consequences: rigidities, depression, no irony — things that are pretty important, that enable us to cope in a world of many demands.

MS. TIPPETT: This is Speaking of Faith. Stay with us for "Play, Spirit, and Character."

DR. BROWN: This is serious, you know? (Laughing)We don't want to have any mischief happening on this program.

MS. TIPPETT: (Laughing) That's right.


(Sound bite of swimmers)

MS. TIPPETT: I'm Krista Tippett. Who knew that we learn empathy, trust, irony, and problem solving through what the dictionary defines as "pleasurable and apparently purposeless activity." This hour, we'll explore why play is an indispensable part of being human. My guest, Dr. Stuart Brown, directs the National Institute for Play. He suggests, for example, that the rough-and-tumble play of children actually prevents violent behavior, that play can grow human talents and character across a lifetime, that play can be a glimpse of the divine.

From American Public Media, this is Speaking of Faith, public radio's conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. Today, "Play, Spirit, and Character."

Stuart Brown founded the National Institute for Play at the age of 63, after too many years, as he now puts it, as a workaholic doctor. But it was his work in neurology and psychiatry that brought play to his attention. As a clinician and professor in Texas and at the University of California–San Diego, he discovered play deprivation across the lifespan of homicidal young men. And he observed an active play life as a quality of healthy individuals.

(Sound bit of music)

MS. TIPPETT: The mission of Stuart Brown's National Institute for Play in California is to bring the unrealized knowledge, practices, and benefits of play into public life, in part through supporting and publicizing scientific insight into this aspect of human nature. Initially, Stuart Brown found little serious science on human play. But he discovered a rich world of study in the work of Jane Goodall and other biologists engaged with intelligent social animals

These days, he consults on how to bring play principles into the workplace, and he speaks widely about the sophisticated language of play that is intelligible across species. I wanted to understand the bold and intriguing claims Stuart Brown makes for the benefits of play. "A playful life," he writes, "contributes directly to the capacity to approach and solve complex life problems." So what is his working definition of play?

DR. BROWN: Go to the Oxford Dictionary and you'll find at least 50 definitions. But, and to start with, I'd say play is anything that spontaneously is done for its own sake. And then one can extend that into more and more detailed definitions, such as appears purposeless, produces pleasure and joy, leads one to the next stage of mastery. In terms of biology, appears to be the product of what I call divinely superfluous neurons. There is choice …


DR. BROWN: … in the player's life. And that choice, if given opportunities through the environment, emerges innately and spontaneously if the individual, or animal for that matter, that's capable of playing is safe and well fed.

MS. TIPPETT: … in the player's life. And that choice, if given opportunities through the environment, emerges innately and spontaneously if the individual, or animal for that matter, that's capable of playing is safe and well fed.

DR. BROWN: So true.

MS. TIPPETT: I wouldn't — I probably would put myself in this category at certain points in my life. Something that appears purposeless would probably lead to anxiety rather than joy for me.

MR. BROWN: Well, I hope not. I hope part of the outcome of this discussion with you and your audience is a little guilt-free purposelessness.

MS. TIPPETT: OK. And, you know, and you mentioned animals. And it is very intriguing to look at the work you do at the National Institute for Play, but also how much you've been involved in the science of play, which encompasses both animals and human beings. When I use that phrase, the science of play, what comes to mind for you? There's this whole world, this whole universe of a different kind of science that you have been immersed in, that the rest of us probably don't even know about.

DR. BROWN: Well, I think that's true. And I think that's the science of play. And having had a background in medicine and psychiatry and neurology primed me, I think, to see play behavior in its evolutionary terms. So that when I had the option — fairly late in my career — of studying play in a broad sense, I started with the animals in the wild and learned a huge amount about sort of the spectrum of play behavior in the animal world.

MS. TIPPETT: I've looked at some projects you were involved in, in an issue of National Geographic, some of the visuals. There are these remarkable images of cheetahs and cranes and bears and mountain goats who seem clearly to be playing.

MR. BROWN: Well, I think there is no doubt, at least to us onlookers, that they're playing. And my guess is, by all the measurements we can make on the animals, they actually are playing.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. And what do we know about it through science?

DR. BROWN: Well, I think we know a lot about it through the wonderful laboratory rat. They make a particular squeak, that's inaudible to humans, as a signal that they want to play. They then wrestle with each other and pin each other, particularly during their juvenile times. They engage in what a number of investigators call hardwired rough-and-tumble play. And the outcome of that is quite striking, because if the laboratory investigator stops the rats specifically from playing, there are some dire consequences. They do not socialize normally. They can't recognize friend from foe. And there are other very specific kinds of outcomes, which to my way of thinking, to some degree, match some of the human outcomes. But, of course, they're in rat language and human outcomes are much more intricate.

MS. TIPPETT: So what is happening in play that enables it to have that effect on animal development or even human lives? What do we understand about this?

MR. BROWN: Well, I don't think we understand enough, because the cultural heritage we have is kind of like your guilt.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. Yeah.

MR. BROWN: It is that play is trivial. It's what you do when your responsibilities are taken care of, particularly as an adult. But if you were to follow, as I have at least scholastically and, if not, clinically, if you're to follow the trail of play in both animals and humans, the beginning point of play in the mother-infant or parent-infant bonding process is kind of the spontaneous eruption of joy and pleasure upon the process of being safely fed and, in the case of the human, when there is eye contact. And the social smile emerges and the infant and the mother begins to coo. That cooing, that's worldwide. And there is mutual joy. And the brain imaging that's associated with that shows an attunement between the mother's right cortex, a nondominant hemisphere of the brain, and the baby's.

And then if you build on that and say, 'OK, the child has experienced that and now they're growing up a little bit,' they get some of the same joyful experience from grabbing something, putting it in their mouths when they're infants, and then a little later, playing with toys, and then ultimately, parallel play with other children and on and on. I could go right on up through the whole life cycle, each of which has more and more intricate, more complex play if the individual is sort of allowed, through the environment, to take advantage of it.

(Sound bite of dogs playing)

MS. TIPPETT: I mean, here's a statement. This was from an interview you did with Bob Fagen, who studies mammals and birds, bears in particular. And you asked him about the play of bears. And one answer he gave you was, "They play because it's fun." And then you probed. And he said also, "In a world's continuously presenting unique challenges and ambiguity, play prepares them for an evolving planet." I mean, that's a huge idea. I think you've said something similar about how play equips human beings to live in the world. But can you explain that to me more?

DR. BROWN: Well, I think, again, this, part of the reason that I pursued a brilliant field scientist like Bob was I was trying to figure out the same question you're asking. Because even as a trained psychiatrist, I didn't really, I couldn't really figure out where it came from, why it's there.


DR. BROWN: But when you see animals and humans who are deprived of it, they are fixed and rigid in their responses to complex stimuli. They don't have a repertoire of choices that are as broad as their intelligence should allow them to have. And they don't seek out novelty and newness, which is part of an essential aspect of play, both in animals and humans. So if you look at the human situation, at least for the last 200,000 years or so, our capacity as a species to adapt, whether we're in the Arctic or the tropics, the desert or a rain forest, appears to me to be related significantly to our capacity and, as developing creatures, to play.

And then if you look more closely at the human being, you find that the human being really is designed biologically to play throughout the life cycle. And that, and from my standpoint as a clinician, when one really doesn't play at all or very little in adulthood, there are consequences: rigidities, depression, lack of adaptability, no irony — you know, things that are pretty important, that enable us to cope in a world of many demands.

MS. TIPPETT: National Institute for Play director Dr. Stuart Brown.

(Sound bite of swimmers)

MS. TIPPETT: I'm Krista Tippett and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, we're exploring the place of play in human spirit and character.

I'm interested in the fine line that I think perhaps is more apparent when you're studying animals or children, between playing and fighting or — right? So as the mother of a son, and I didn't have this experience with my daughter, but with my son, I do see how he has this rich fantasy life. And it's often kind of with himself, although there are all kinds of characters in the room who I can't see. And …

DR. BROWN: That's wonderful.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Is it, is that good?

DR. BROWN: That's good news.

MS. TIPPETT: And so I've named it — what he does — "saving the world." Right? So when he says, "I need to go save the world," which is a really nice spin, I promise you. But there's a certain violence. There's a combativeness to it. And apparently, that's quite common, as well.

DR. BROWN: It's universal if it's allowed to emerge.

MS. TIPPETT: So what is that about?

DR. BROWN: Let me sort of go on a riff about rough-and-tumble play …


DR. BROWN: …which occurs in children both genders, but is a bit more obvious usually in boys. If you are to observe kids, like in a preschool, that are involved with all the exuberance that preschool kids have age 4 — 3, 4, 5, and you watch them at play, it's chaotic, anarchic, looks violent on the, to the surface. They're diving. They're hitting. They're squealing. They're screaming. But if you look at them, they're smiling at each other. It's not a contest of who's going to win. And most well-meaning parents and a lot of, certainly, a lot of preschool teachers put the lid on that …


DR. BROWN: … because it's, you know, it's scary, a little scary for an adult …

MS. TIPPETT: It is scary.

DR. BROWN: … because they don't remember. And almost, always has pretense and real. It has violence and fantasy, and it is the borderland between inside and outside in making sense of the world. It's a very important part of free play driven from within by the child's own personality and temperament in mixing with others. Now, you were surprised when I said things like empathy and trust earlier …

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, yeah.

DR. BROWN: … in our discussion. But think about this. If, if you are in a rough-and-tumble situation, somebody hits you too hard, you know what that feels like. So you're not going to hit, in general, hit somebody else too hard, because you know what it feels like. And that's the roots, for example, of an emphatic response. And the thing that —none of the murderers I studied engaged in normal rough-and-tumble play. Absolutely none. And if you extrapolate the rough-and-tumble play backwards into animals, they also appear to need it to be able to properly find their place in the troop or the tribe or the pack and develop a social reality to meet their needs.

So your son sounds like he's doing what's pretty normal stuff. And I think there has to be reasonable protection by adults, but not the kind of helicopter parent hovering over the situation, which prevents the spontaneity from occurring and the kids from solving their own problems that are age appropriate for them.

MS. TIPPETT: I think that's really interesting, that even what looks like potentially violent play or, you know, can look dangerous is also a source of learning about empathy and boundaries, I guess.

DR. BROWN: Sure. Well, they're imposed. And most kids who have had a not-too-toxic or sadistic bully in their midst will gang up on the bully and take care of him. And the bully learns. If the bully spends too much time not experiencing a normal rough-and-tumble play, or if the taboos of violence are broken again and again in the home of the bully, then the bully's got to be removed from the play situation or they will, you know, upset and upend the whole playground. But in general, the kids solve their own problems. And that's one of the most important things they learn about themselves. They learn whether they're strong or not so strong, fast or cagey, verbal or nonverbal, imaginative or something else. And you learn that, generally, on the way up, sequentially, throughout your childhood.

(Sound bite of baseball game)

MS. TIPPETT: In some of what you write and the other people you're in conversation with, you make a distinction between play and contest or competition, although, I think, in our culture, the two often become entangled, and maybe adults even impose that on children's play. I don't know.

MR. BROWN: Yeah. This is — this is certainly a sticky wicket. But in trying to sort of organize my thinking about competition and contest, this is where I go back to what appears to occur in nature and what appears to be kind of a natural process developmentally in those children who appear to be having a very normal background in play without too much imposition of cultural pressures on the part of the culture of the parents. And what one sees in general is a natural emergence of competitive activity. And by that, I mean testing one's skill against the skill of another …


DR. BROWN: … without the necessity of domination. And so that that quality of competition appears to be pretty universal — in cliques in girls and in, sometimes, kind of physical prowess in both genders also. Whereas contest, I think, requires a winner, often has an exclusionary quality to it, and is not what you see in animal play in the high primates in nature. You'll see …

MS. TIPPETT: Really?

DR. BROWN: … yeah, you'll see handicapping that occurs spontaneously in nature, in which the stronger person allows or handicaps the weaker individual so that the play can continue. If there is a chase, often the chaser becomes a chasee. There isn't chasing somebody down and then putting him down. So that's sort of the natural history of play in the wild. And I think there, it is possible for a wise coach or a seasoned parent to deal with a competition where mutual participation, love of the game, personal best — there are ways of dealing with this to keep this volunteer sports going without it being super contest at the, particularly at the younger ages.

MS. TIPPETT: You make a very interesting and intriguing point about the scientists themselves who you have interacted with over the years: Jane Goodall in Africa, you mentioned Bob Fagen, Marc Bekoff, Irenäus Eibesfeldt, these are all people who study play in animals. And you've written, I believe, their immersion in wild play or natural play has altered them. Say some more about that.

DR. BROWN: Well, I, you know, I know, particularly, Jane, Marc, and Bob very well, and Jane certainly was altered by the prolonged exposure and the slow habituation of the chimpanzees in Gambia when she was, you know, what some people at the National Geographic called "Eve in Eden," but — where she saw and took in, in particular, the mother-infant play of chimpanzees and has written beautiful scientific essays about this and about the qualities that are induced. And when one talks to her about this, she takes on kind of a — I won't call it ethereal — but it's sort of a knowingness that this is something in nature that's beautiful and appropriate and can be incorporated in its own language for humans.

And then I go to Bob Fagen who's with the bears in the wild for years and years. And I've been with him in Alaska up in a tree hour after hour watching bear play. And Bob has a kind of a spiritual aesthetic about play that permeates his life. I think, you know, I've never really tested this in anyway because it would have been inappropriate, but I think that there is a certain quality of optimism and compassion that has occurred through the systematic observation of play over a lifetime.

Certainly, it's that case, that's the case with Marc Bekoff, whose writings on animal ethics and human ethics and the origins of morality stem from his long exposure in the wild to coyote play and other animals at play. So I've been very impressed by immersing one's self in the study of play. There is a certain either permission or osmosis that occurs that's good for us.

MS. TIPPETT: To me, one of the most wonderful gifts of becoming a parent is that I get a second chance to be playful.

DR. BROWN: You bet. Well, they are the professionals, we're not.


DR. BROWN: They're — they're the ones who are purer in their play than we as adults are. So you're right on. And, you know, being a grandparent, you get a third chance.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. It, it awakens, I do become aware that it awakens something in me, right?

DR. BROWN: Sure.

MS. TIPPETT: That it's also part of being human. And it enriches me to be exposed to that, for that to be part of my life again.

DR. BROWN: Well, it's relearning the languages that are fundamental to play, which are largely nonverbal and emotional and really fairly specific. When you relearn those languages, just like the mother looking at her smiling child, you get a spontaneous burst of pleasure. And that, that's pretty important.

(Sound bite of music)

MS. TIPPETT: On our Web site at, Stuart Brown narrates an audio slideshow featuring National Geographic photos of a polar bear and a sled dog frolicking in the wild, though it looks at first like a hostile encounter. Since we first aired this program, we've been amazed at the interest in this slide show. Over 3 million people from Texas to Tokyo have viewed it. Find it at Also download the MP3 of this program and my complete unedited conversation with Stuart Brown.

(Sound bite of The Little Willies, "Roly Poly")

After short break, we'll explore the relationship between play and the discovery of our natural talents in childhood and adulthood. I'm Krista Tippett, stay with us. Speaking of Faith comes to you from American Public Media.


(Sound bite of The Lovin' Spoonful, "Daydream")

MS. TIPPETT: Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, public radio's conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. I'm Krista Tippett.

Today, we're talking about play as a catalyst of human character across the lifespan. My guest, Dr. Stuart Brown, originally developed a passionate interest in play after he studied play deprivation as a characteristic of violent young males. His National Institute for Play is now seeking to address gaps in scientific and cultural understanding of the importance of play in human life. In this, it would seem, he is in sync with our times.

Stuart Brown's ideas about the importance of play have echoed in the success of The Dangerous Book for Boys, which has been a best seller since its publication over a year ago. The book has appealed to a generation of parents, raising children in danger of too little playful and life-giving risk. Chapters include "Making a Bow and Arrow," "Making a Go-Cart," and "Famous Battles."

I asked Stuart Brown what he understands from science as well as experience about the effect overprotected play may have on children.

DR. BROWN: This is a tough one because I don't want to foster broken bones and concussions and that sort of thing in kids. But an inherent part of being playful is taking risk. What you don't want to do is have the risks be excessive. And the natural history of play in the world, both animal and human, is that persistent play increases the risk of death and damage while it's taking place. But it appears to be absolutely necessary for the well-being and, say, future of the species. So it is a — it's a conundrum, but to remove risk, all risk from kids' play, is to not allow them the spontaneity from within to develop themselves. It's a judgment call on the part of parents. And I think this is where I have some beef with the media, in that I think "if it bleeds, it leads" — the perceptions of the levels of violence and risk in our culture are really beyond what the actual risks are, so that a responsible parent feels they can't let their kid be out on the streets in the afternoon and that sort of thing.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. And what I kind of hear you saying — I mean, here's a quote from something Jane Goodall said: "Play teaches young animals what they can and cannot do at a time when they are relatively free from the survival pressures of adult life." But I feel like we are so obsessed and I'm, you know, speaking for myself as well, with our children's safety and so fearful that they don't get that freedom, our children.

DR. BROWN: Very true. And I, I think this is — there are some heartening playground movements both in Europe and in the U.S., where the playgrounds are going to be not so sterile and allow, I mean, the fact that that there are no teeter-totters and most of the swings don't really go very far, et cetera, et cetera, and the monkey bars can only be three feet high. You know, it's reasonable to have safe playgrounds, but it's also reasonable to have challenging playgrounds. And I think the balance — to develop that balance is a skill that's now becoming part of architectural schools. And I know there are some corporate interests in Europe that are trying to develop multiethnic playgrounds so that some of the ethnic tensions will be dealt with in a playground way when the kids are small.

MS. TIPPETT: Hmm. I mean, I kind of hear you putting a point on this so — in saying that, you know, that we're keeping their bodies safe and endangering their souls if we don't let them take some risks and be more playful.

DR. BROWN: No question about it. I think it's safer for the person who is a player to take a few hard knocks and maybe have a fracture in childhood, than it is to insulate them from the possibility of that. I think that that constricts their psyches and their futures much more.

MS. TIPPETT: Hmm. You've even said that play rewards and directs the living of life in accord with innate talents. How does that work? How do you see that?

DR. BROWN: Well, I could ask you as a parent and any other parent that's listening with their young child, you know, say a child over three but under 12. And if you just observe them and don't try and direct them and watch what it is they like to do in play and get some sense of how their temperament intermixes with their play desires, you often will see a key to their innate talents. And if those talents are given fairly free reign — and this I've done through a lot of clinical study of histories of people, you know, some of whom played and some of who haven't — if you allow those innate talents to build upon themselves and the environment is favorable enough so that it supports that, then the sense of empowerment and freedom such as a premier musician or a prime athlete that's joyful in their athleticism or, you know, the writer who's imaginative, J.K. Rowling, you know, I think that then you see that there is a union between self and talent. And that this is nature's way of sort of saying this is who you are and what you are. And I'm sure if you go back and think about both of your children or yourself and go back to your earliest emotion-laden, visual, and visceral memories of what really gave you joy, you'll have some sense of what was natural for you and where your talents lie.

MS. TIPPETT: National Institute for Play founder Dr. Stuart Brown. Here are some voices collected by the Lemelson Center for Invention and Innovation at the Smithsonian Institution. They are an inventor, a neurologist who works with musicians, a developmental psychologist, and a scientist who studies creativity.

MAN #1: You look at the successful lives of people who have really made a difference in human society, and what you find is that they didn't do things by the rules. They, in fact, insisted on making their own rules. They were playful people. I happen to be — at the ripe old age of 64 — just learning how to ride motorcycles for the first time. Terrifying, but awfully fun.

MAN #2: No one becomes a great inventor or a great scientist or a great writer or anything else, unless they love what they do. Because you have to really be able to invest your entire soul into something. And if you can't play at it, if you can't just do something because you enjoy it, then you can't do it completely enough or long enough to succeed at it.

WOMAN: You can say, if you're in a company in Silicon Valley, 'OK. You guys, here's the general space of what we want you to find out about. And we're just going to let you play around until you do.'

MAN #3: Sometimes, I, I have to realize that wherever I feel stuck, it's often a cue to start playing. And it's as if play can actually open my mind again, actually help to reinvigorate the work that I'm doing.

MS. TIPPETT: I'm Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today with Dr. Stuart Brown on play in human spirit and formation.

MS. TIPPETT: I think it's fashionable to say that media is ruining our children and they watch too much TV and video games are ruining them. And it's certainly one effect of keeping our children safe indoors is that we kind of make them captive to technology. That can be one effect. But I will say that as I look at some of the computer- and Internet-based games that my children discover, some of them are incredibly interactive. And there's a lot of imagination.

DR. BROWN: Sure, they are.

MS. TIPPETT: I mean, is some of that OK?

DR. BROWN: Oh, sure, of course. I mean, the research is not very good, in my field. It is pretty good on the effects of violent TV, for example, the prolonged exposure of violent TV. But, but the research on video games, particularly if it's kind of nonaddictive video game use, is not very solid. And I think there is evidence that a limited amount of video games probably increases imaginativeness and skills. And the newly designed video games that incorporate movement are likely to be much more savory for the body and mind than, let's say, one that's strictly two-dimensional screen and your thumb's on a gadget.

MS. TIPPETT: Is the involvement of the body generally really important in terms of the positive effects that you've noted in play in animals and people?

DR. BROWN: Absolutely. I'm glad you asked the question. Part of the brain called the cerebellum, at least when I went to medical school, was thought to just help coordinate eye movements and body balance. Now, with refined imaging techniques, we see that there are connections between the cerebellum and the prefrontal cortex that get lit up by three-dimensional movement. And there's every evidence that movement accelerates learning. And this is in its infancy. But there's enough evidence for this that this is — these are parts of studies that the National Institute for Play is attempting to organize because it seems to be very important.

MS. TIPPETT: Well, you know, I'm struck that we're having this very serious conversation about play. Just …

DR. BROWN: Well, this is serious, you know? We don't want to have any mischief happening on this program.

MS. TIPPETT: That's right. I mean, just tell me how this research, in this immersion that you have in play as a study, how does it change your experience of this part of life? Or how does it change you?

DR. BROWN: Well, I give myself over at least three or four hours a day to what, for an old guy, is spontaneous free play. It, you know, it could be reading or what I would call as extremely low-quality rogue tennis, hiking, playing with grandchildren. But I, you know, if a day goes by and I haven't, at this age, had some sense of timelessness and freedom and purposelessness, I'll probably be kind of ratty by suppertime.

MS. TIPPETT: But, boy, cultivating an appreciation for timelessness and purposelessness, I mean, that's work in our culture.

DR. BROWN: Shouldn't be. Should be a part of our — and, you know, you attenuate recess, cut down recess and kids are learning that what's important is academic performance. Whereas, probably equal amounts if not more are being learned on the playground at recess. Most kids are outside of time when they're on the playground at recess if it's free play.

MS. TIPPETT: Discuss more about that. What do you mean "outside of time"? I mean, that's such an invocative phrase.

DR. BROWN: Well, if one were to get a replay of Michael Jordan in one of the final games of the NBA championship and see him zoning down the floor doing some moves he's never done before and tossing the ball up for a basket, I doubt if, at that time, he is really conscious that the buzzer's about to go or that — I think he's outside of time. And I can certainly give you from my own life recollections of that sensation. Just, say last week, I was I in a nice musical concert that was being held in Monterey and, you know, I got lost in the music and had the feeling of, you know, sort of an oceanic feeling of not being there. And it wasn't something I expected to happen. But it was pleasurable. Watching a grandson of mine on the floor with his stuffed animal talking to it, timeless. And it's different for, for lots of us. But I think that that's a, you know, a play state of being that's an important sense of priority that you don't try and struggle toward, but you try and sort of let it happen to yourself from within what works for you.

MS. TIPPETT: You did mention reading, and I don't know if reading would fall into a definition of play, but it is something, for me, that's a very pleasurable and transports me to a timeless place. Does reading count for you

DR. BROWN: Oh, of course.


DR. BROWN: Very much so. And I share that, that same weakness.

MS. TIPPETT: And so, you know, when you talk about timelessness that does have a spiritual resonance. How do you think about this spirituality of play that's — maybe you would put other words on it.

DR. BROWN: Well, I don't know that I have a crisp way of thinking about it. I can give you a private experience that was, to me, a spiritual experience

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. BROWN: When I was working with the National Geographic and — was able, privileged to spend time with play researchers in Africa, I do vividly remember one morning when I was watching a pride of lions and two sub-adult female lionesses got up, looked at each other — and there's a picture of this in the National Geographic magazine, what looked from a distance kind of like a fight, but it was a ballet. And while I was watching this, I was overwhelmed by the feeling that this is — I'm almost brought to tears talking about it now — that this is divine. There's something divine going on here that transcends their carnivorousness and the, you know, red and tooth and claw and the rest of it. Now that's my projection onto it, but it still is very meaningful to me. And I think seeing a young child just immersed in play and watching them closely is a spiritual experience. And there is spirit emerging in play. Something nonmaterial that's a part of it that at least it's hard for me to define in this as a just ions zipping around in a nervous system.

(Sound bite of fencing)

MS. TIPPETT: Dr. Stuart Brown of the National Institute for Play. The sounds of a fencing club on a summer Tuesday night with students of all ages.

DR. BROWN: If you're living a life without it, yeah, you're life can go on OK. It's — you're going to survive, you're not going to die if you don't play

MS. TIPPETT: Without it, with play, right. Without play.

DR. BROWN: Without play.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. BROWN: But it's kind of an endurance contest. Some of the essence of life is being missed.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. BROWN: And that's one thing and that's important to me. And probably, the other thing that we haven't talked about but which has really struck me since I have been a student of play is looking at the biological design of being human. And when you look closely at that, I'll give you an analogy. A Labrador retriever plays through its lifetime and dies a child. A wolf sort of gives up childish thing, double-scent marks, has alpha behavior, governs its reproduction, and is a very successful animal if it isn't killed off by humans — but doesn't play much. But if you look at the human and look at our nervous systems and our, what I would call our physiognomy, the way we look and the way we're designed …


DR. BROWN: … we really are designed to retain immature playful-like attributes throughout our life cycle. That's a fundamental part of our design. We know that human beings are now capable of neurogenesis, of new neural development throughout the lifetime, whereas most other creatures cannot. That's a design part of being human. Now take that into policy matters.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. BROWN: Do we parent that way? Do we teach our kids in school that way? Do we take advantage of the design? Do we also see that there are hazards? The permanent adolescence of the human being means we may be subject to irrational, impulsive behavior. Maybe our laws and our institutions should help reflect that a bit more. If we don't play, what are the consequences? We're more reptilian. We're more savage. We're more — we lack some of those features that I've mentioned earlier in the program.

MS. TIPPETT: I think that in making a connection between play and maturity and wisdom, because you know that's something I hear, you're affirming — one of the most surprising experiences I've had of enjoying growing older, you know, sort of heading into the latter part of my 40s, which is that I actually think I am enjoying life more and relaxing, and …

DR. BROWN: Good for you.

MS. TIPPETT: … and throwing my self into play in a way that I didn't when I was younger and, you know, accomplishing things. Hopefully, I'm still accomplishing things but I'm not …

DR. BROWN: You've gained — you've gained wisdom earlier than most of us. I certainly was a workaholic doctor for too long in my life.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. But I mean that is the model in our culture of what being mature is. I mean, being mature is being that wolf. It's leaving behind the Labrador behavior. I mean, clearly, I know what you're saying.

DR. BROWN: Correct.

MS. TIPPETT: There's a line between being the permanent adolescent and being a playful, mature human being. But I don't — I think you're right that our culture doesn't know how to talk about that playfulness as a wisdom, kind of.

DR. BROWN: There is a kind of a paradox and it doesn't mean we should be irresponsible.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. BROWN: Just the opposite. By having empathy and trust and compassion, which I think are byproducts of the playful life because you got a little left over, it doesn't mean that you're just going to go off and do whatever you want hedonistically. There are boundaries that are certainly part of …


DR. BROWN: … play. But it doesn't mean you have to be a grouch or serious all the time. I mean, look at Reagan and Gorbachev at a — talks in Iceland. They broke down completely until the morning they were to leave, Reagan had said, 'Let's have breakfast together.' And he went in, started telling dirty jokes, and then Gorby started telling dirty jokes. They reorganized the conference and they got the missile situation taken care of. So …

MS. TIPPETT: That's hard to turn into a paradigm, though?

DR. BROWN: Yes, I know. I don't expect us to do that with the Iranians at the moment.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Yeah. I remember being at a retreat once. I think it was a spiritual retreat, very serious. And I remember some people saying how one of the things they were working at this point in their life was playing more, and something about the way they said it, about what hard work it was, made it feel like a doomed enterprise. And you know …

DR. BROWN: Well, it doesn't sound like.

MS. TIPPETT: And I worry a little bit when you now kind of rediscover — we're having this conversation about our children. But are we going to make them work so hard at playing that we ruin it for them? So, I mean, what advice would you give people about recovering this as a healthy part of our lives if it's something that we've lost, and that our culture really, really works against?

DR. BROWN: I think recovering it depends a little on how much of it you had as a kid and you can bring back in adult form into your current contemporary life. You know, I take a lot of reviews of play of varieties of people. And when I come across somebody who really has had an abusive childhood and they say, 'Well, I never really played. I never felt free to play.' It's not that they've lost it. They feel they've never had it.


DR. BROWN: Well, then you start with things like rhythm and movement and those things that intrinsically produce some sense of pleasure and joyfulness. Well, as Bob Fagen says, "Movement fills an empty heart."

MS. TIPPETT: You mean like movement dancing or sports or anything.

DR. BROWN: Dancing, yeah. Dancing, but things that are conflict-free but that you can kind of do that produce a sense of some of the things I've talked about — a sense of pleasure, of taking you out of that urgency of time — that work for you, whether it's reading or dancing or hiking or conversation in a pub or what. You know, there are lots of different ways. But I think it's important to find those things that work for you and to then, as Campbell said, then "follow your bliss."

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. BROWN: Find your bliss and follow it. But the bliss is usually retrievable. It's kind of like you have to reach for it and pull it out, you know, from within your memory. But reach into visual images and emotional images that are — that produce a sense of pleasure for you, and then build on them. And that usually helps in the recovery. And it's not something that happens overnight. It's a slow but enjoyable process.

MS. TIPPETT: I think it might be frightening at 60 to say this is an absolutely essential part of being human that I've paid no attention to and I'm not very good at, and I don't know how to begin.

DR. BROWN: But you know, it's different than trying to learn a new language, learning Chinese at 60 because Chinese isn't imbedded in you but play is.


DR. BROWN: You got a leg up on play just by being human.

MS. TIPPETT: Stuart Brown is founder and president of the National Institute for Play near Monterey, California. He produced the three part PBS series The Promise of Play and lectures widely.

(Sound bite of Dancers Studio's Tuesday-night salsa class)

DANCE INSTRUCTOR: Five, six, here we go. And one, two, three, five, six, seven. Guys, open up. Bring the lady 'cross, and one, two, three, five, six, seven. Not too shabby. OK, we're going to try this with music a couple of times. Five, six, here we go. And basic, five, six, seven, and guys, open up. Bring the lady 'cross, and a one, two, three, five, six, seven. Very nicely done. Ladies, thank that partner …

MS. TIPPETT: We'd like to hear your stories about integrating play into your life. Go to and look for the Share Your Story link. Our Web site also features rich visuals of animals and people at play. Watch a video of young Californians floating on the traveling rings at Santa Monica beach. They offer some interesting perspectives on the spirituality they experience in play. Also, I had the opportunity to continue this conversation with Stuart Brown in front of a live audience at the New York Public Library last winter. Visit our staff blog, SOF Observed, to watch that event. Find the blog and discover more at

DANCE INSTRUCTOR: Five, six, here we go. And one, two, three, five, six, seven, and guys, open up, bring the ladies across and a one, two, three, five, six, seven. Thank that partner rotate on down one time.

MS. TIPPETT: The senior producer of Speaking of Faith is Mitch Hanley, with producers Colleen Scheck, Shiraz Janjua, and Rob McGinley Myers, with help from Alda Balthrop-Lewis. Our online editor is Trent Gilliss, with Web producer Andrew Dayton. Special thanks this week to photographer Norbert Rosing, the PUSH Conference, the Annenberg School of Journalism at the University of Southern California, the Tuesday-night salsa class at the Dancers Studio, the Twin Cities Fencing Club, the Chihuahua Western Wear baseball team, and swimmers at Como pool in St. Paul, Minnesota. Kate Moos is the managing producer of Speaking of Faith, and I'm Krista Tippett.