Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Science of Play Part 2

In my last article, I started an overview of the Dr. Stuart Brown’s book Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul.  I consider this book to be one of my top picks for parents, educators and any adult who plays a mentoring role in the life of a child.

I will continue my review of the book along with some personal input regarding the importance of play in the lives of children, teens and adults.
In the chapter called “Playing Together”, Dr. Brown makes a fascinating discovery during his interview with a fifty year old woman about how she used to play with Barbie Dolls when she was nine years old and how it foreshadowed her (and her friend’s) relationships later in life.
The woman explained that when she and her friend dug the Barbies out of storage, they talked about how they played with them.  Her preferred pretend style was the “damsel in distress” as a means to attract men.  Her friend’s style was more of a hipster who smoked cigarettes and wore Ken’s shirts.
Today, upon reflection, the woman realized that after her own 3 marriages and her friend always being with a guy but never being married, that their play style seemed to foreshadow their lives.  As well, neither of them was into playing with baby dolls… which was interesting in that both women never had children.
After I read this, I couldn’t help but recall my own childhood play habits.  At the age of nine, I never played with Barbie Dolls.  My preference, by far, was small action figures called “Adventure People”.  I loved Adventure People because they always came with really cool safari jeeps, scuba gear, rock climbing and outdoor adventure equipment. 
Go figure, I went on to become an underwater videographer for awhile and I met my husband in Rock Climbing School.  Our honeymoon was spent camping, hiking and whitewater rafting.  After our 20th anniversary, we went dog sledding and snowmobiling.  Our play as adults is simply an actual version of our youthful pretend.
Take a moment to think back on your own childhood style of play.  Did your play theme foreshadow your current life?
What do you do now that can be considered “play”?  It doesn’t have to fit the common notion of play… serious hobbies and competitive sports can be play time for adults.  If you are fortunate, some part of your work can also be considered play.  At Guard Up, the majority of our business involves dressing up in costumes, playing characters or monsters, and making up stories.  Yes, there is still the business part of it… but every person who wants to has a chance to play.

In his book, Dr. Brown quotes Isaac Asimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny…’”
He provides an excellent example of William Henry Perkin, who was trying to synthesize quinine back in 1856 and ended up with a sticky, black mess.  However, William was also an artist and tried thinning the substance with alcohol out of curiosity.  He ended up creating the first purple chemical dye and making purple cloth (heretofore, very rare and expensive) quite affordable.
You can imagine this young man (only 18 years old at the time), examining this sticky, black mess and taking a moment to dilute it to get a better look at it.  At some point, he likely uttered the words “That’s funny…” and his play became an invention that ushered in the “mauve decade” in the 1890s.

Dr. Brown also shares an idea that touches upon a concept elaborated upon by Joseph Campbell in The Power of Myth. Literature and mythology is filled with stories of the hero who must break away from the trodden path and take a lonely, perilous journey that culminates in a great struggle.  The ending often entails the triumphant hero returning to his or her home, stronger and wiser, and bearing something of benefit to the community.
Playing pretend gives children the chance to envision themselves as that hero… to imagine the challenges, the loneliness and the struggle – and to persevere through what lies before them.  It serves as the infrastructure for their own life story… where they come to realize, to paraphrase Ralf Waldo Emerson, that what lies inside them is greater than what lies before or behind them.

Play time is the first activity to get sacrificed when parents feel that their children are not developing the skills necessary for college admission or a career that can pay the bills.  Unfortunately, it is play time that is largely responsible for the development of our creativity and the inspiration for our desire to discover.  It is also the “testing grounds” for the formation of our relationships as well as the foundation of our self image later in life.
Watch a child play… get down on the floor, at their level, and immerse yourself within their story.  You may learn more about who this child is… and who they will be… than any school report card can tell you.

Meghan Gardner
Guard Up! After School Program

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