Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Book Review: Play by Stuart Brown, MD

Dr. Brown takes playing very seriously:

"Play is a profound biological process."

"The ability to play is critical not only to being happy, but also to sustaining social relationships and being a creative, innovative person.

"Play is the vital essence of life.  It is what makes life lively."

"Play is like fertilizer for brain growth."

"Play is the purest expression of love."

With statements like that, Dr. Brown seems to imbue play with some sort of supernatural power that makes you smarter, happier, practically impervious to harm or error, and just all-around better.  Ok, I'm exaggerating just a bit, but how can you not decide you need more play in your life after assertions like that?

Dr. Brown lays out seven properties of play and a six-step process people go through when they play, as well as seven guidelines on how to incorporate play into your life.  He uses examples from the animal kingdom - otters, dogs, polar bears, even hippos and sea squirts - to show how pervasive play is, and how it can teach survival skills.  He highlights playful individuals as diverse as Bill Gates, Albert Einstein and Baz Luhrmann to show what play can accomplish.  He covers a lot of ground in this book.

But rather than giving you a rundown of everything Dr. Brown mentions, I want to ruminate on just one of his pithy points about play and my own related experiences.

"The opposite of play is not work--the opposite of play is depression."

Stay-at-home-motherhood is work.  It's a never-ending cycle of doing things that need to be done again and again and again: making meals, washing dishes, doing laundry, sweeping, wiping, scrubbing, vacuuming, sorting, and driving from point A to point B and back again.  Frankly, it can be plain and simple drudgery to be responsible for the care, safety and well-being of young'uns, drudgery that can suck the joy out of everyday if you allow it to.  When Dr. Brown warns that "our inherent need for variety and challenge can be buried by an overwhelming sense of responsibility", I wearily nod my agreement.

But stay-at-home-motherhood also has opportunities for play built right in.  Dr. Brown mentions that playing with either pets or children "allows us to get past those same, self-censoring impulses that make it so difficult to allow ourselves to play" and, whaddaya know, being a SAHM generally comes along with children who are always ready to play.  Whether it's throwing a frisbee in the backyard or pulling out the classic Chutes and Ladders, opportunities for play abound if we avail ourselves of them.  For some moms (and dads) that comes naturally.  I am not one of those parents.  So I need to very intentionally and deliberately choose to play with my children.

With kids, even work can become play.  My youngest has a great time helping to wash dishes (and experimenting with the soap suds bubbles), and the older two have much more fun with their chores when they turn sorting laundry into a game of who-can-empty-their-basket-first-while-throwing-the-most-clothes-on-top-of-the-other.  This demonstrates Dr. Brown's assertion that "far from standing in opposition to each other, play and work are mutually supportive...neither one can thrive without the other."  The work gets done more quickly, with a better attitude by all, if play is integrated into it.

In addition, according to Dr. Brown, play improves your work and vice versa.  "The quality that work and play have in common in creativity.  In both we are building our world, creating new relationships, neural connections, objects."  So I'm going to work on incorporating play into my work more frequently and see where it gets me both creatively and attitude-wise.  I'll let you know how it goes.

Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul
by Stuart Brown, MD, with Christopher Vaughan
ISBN: 9781583333334
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, paperback, ebook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

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