A More Resilient Species

“A playful brain is a more adaptive brain,” writes ethologist Sergio Pellis in The Playful Brain: Venturing to the Limits of Neuroscience. In his studies, he found that play-deprived rats fared worse in stressful situations.

In our own world filled with challenges ranging from cyber-warfare to infrastructure failure, could self-directed play be the best way to prepare ourselves to face them?

In self-directed play, one structures and drives one’s own play. Self-directed play is experiential, voluntary, and guided by one’s curiosity. This is different from play that is guided by an adult or otherwise externally directed.

A MacArthur Fellow told me that, when he was a teenager, his single mother would drop him off at an industrial supply store on Saturdays while she ran errands. Using library books as his primary resource, he built a linear accelerator in the garage. It wasn’t until neighbors complained about scrambled television and radio signals in the hours just after school and after dinner that his “playful” invention was discovered.

Photo: Linda Stone. "This is the "office" of a 14 year old I know."

Play researchers’ findings indicate that self-directed play, for both children and adults, nourishes the human spirit and helps develop resilience, independence, and resourcefulness. Yet, our desire to be efficient and productive, and our tendency to over-schedule and over-program, has crowded out opportunities for self-directed play in our education system and in our lives at home.

According to Pellis, self-directed play supports us in better handling the complex and the unpredictable, both in social and in non-social situations.

Play scholar, Brian Sutton-Smith, wrote “The opposite of play is not work. The opposite of play is depression.” NIMH reports that one in ten adults are depressed, up over 400% in the last two decades, with far more suffering from anxiety and other mood-related disorders. When psychiatrist Stuart Brown conducted play histories of over 6,000 people from a variety of backgrounds, he noticed that childhood play histories often have a strong relationship to what people do in their adult lives.

A technology consultant I interviewed told me about his passion for stamp and coin collecting. When I probed about his interest in stamps and coins, he said he was fascinated that countries that spoke different languages and had different currencies had found ways to cooperate on services like mail delivery, and had figured out currency exchanges. As an adult, one of his areas of expertise is global internet policy.

One of Brown’s studies covered the life and death of Charles Whitmore, a college campus mass murderer, who, in 1966, on the University of Texas campus, killed 15 people and wounded another 31, after killing his wife and mother the previous evening.

Extensive interviews with those who knew Whitmore, revealed that a “lifelong lack of play” had been an important factor in his psychopathology. Whitmore was always pressured by his parents to “do something useful” -- the antithesis of self-directed play.

In the course of his research and through extensive interviewing, Brown found that many violent criminals shared this same lack of childhood play.

Play can be risky. During self-directed play, our imagination and curiosity guides us as we venture into the areas where we can fail and iterate. Consequently, we play when we feel safe and secure, and self-directed play tends to reinforce a feeling of safety and security.

Researcher Jaak Panksepp, suggests that depriving young animals of play can delay and disrupt brain maturation. Panksepp’s research found evidence that play increased gene expression of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), a protein involved with brain maturation.

On the flip side, a life rich with self-directed play can nourish genius. I had an opportunity to interview a handful of Nobel Laureates on their childhood play patterns, every one of them reported many memorable hours of self-directed play. Many of these Nobel Laureates went on to say, “This is actually what I do in my lab today.”

I worry that our education system focuses on measures related to rote learning versus the type of student engagement enabled by self-directed play. I worry that in our desire to develop our potential through densely packed schedules and programmed activities, we are actually stifling our potential and suffocating imagination and curiosity.

Stuart Brown, author of The Neuroscience of Play, advocates, “Play is…more than just fun. Plenty of play in childhood makes for happy, smart adults – and keeping it up can make us smarter at any age.” It is through self-directed play that we discover who we are. Coaches and experts often admonish us,  "Find your passion!" Then they offer questionnaires and processes.  The truth is, the very best way to find our passions is to give ourselves the gift of time for self-directed play.

[Brain maze illustration: Shutterstock.com]



  1. I recall Richard Feynmann talking about how he discovered something important about quantum dynamics (don’t ask me what) from observing a plate wobbling when thrown up in the air, and just trying to model the wobble for fun.

  2. I think the best purchase I ever made was $200 of assorted legos off Ebay. No manuals, we all just dug in and created whatever we wanted. Years later (now he’s playing Minecraft and learning how to mod games), we donated most of them to the school’s Lego Club.

  3. This reminds me of some points Richard Louv makes in Last child in the woods. He discusses a lack of green places for children to explore and play in. Additionally he addresses the lack of unstructured play even in places designated for play, organised sports being an example. Also a lack of “loose parts” on playgrounds at schools. This stymies imagination and actually punishes divergent thinking (I remember getting in trouble for using a soccer ball as a kamehameha blast). Anyway, I would recommend flipping through Louvs book, its like 90 pages.

    On another note, is resiliency becoming the next “sustainability” style buzz word? C.S. Holling would be pissed…maybe.

    1. Richard Louv, and his book, Last Child in the Woods, are worth reading.  Thanks for bringing this up.  Too much structure leaves no space for serendipitous pursuit of curiosity.

    1. It’s Whitmore.  I missed that typo in an edit.  Thank you.  I’ve had so much fun interviewing both adults and children on their play patterns.  Frequently, about 20 minutes into an interview, many of the adults I interview say what a few of the Nobel Laureates said:  “That’s what I’m doing today!”

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