During his 2008 TED Talk entitled ‘Play is more than just fun‘, Stuart Brown tells the audience about an experiment scientists did with rats. [By this, I’m not condoning animal research, just sharing an insight that truly hit home for me.] He said that rats, indeed all animals, are hard-wired to play at a certain stage in their life as part of their development. In rats, this takes the form of squeaking, wrestling and pinning each other down.
In this experiment scientists suppressed the play instinct in a group of rats, skipping this stage in their development. The control group was left to develop naturally with the play stage intact. The scientists then presented a fear trigger to the two groups of rats. Both groups of rats ran and hid from the trigger, as you would, but what happened next shook me. The rats who’d had the play stage of their development crept out of hiding after a short time, explored the area to find out if the threat had moved on and got on with their lives.
The rats who hadn’t experienced play never came out. And they died in hiding.
Brown then said that the opposite of play isn’t work; it’s depression.
I don’t feel the need to trot out the list of how our lives are becoming busier, more serious and more stressful. Many others have done that brilliantly. But I will reference this growing theme and say that it feels like a wake-up call is needed for us all.
Through play, animals and humans learn about their potential and limitations, about the joys of winning and the disappointment of losing, about fear and how to respond to it. And beyond these formative life lessons, continued play as adults is a vital function that can keep us in good physical and mental health, establish connections with others and even lead to innovative thinking and the ability to solve problems.
I’ve been reminded of this lately by three things:
- Over at Holstee’s Mindful Matter blog, June has been dedicated to play. They have created some wonderful posts and designs around this theme and you can follow them on Instagram here. One of my favourite reminders is this lovely quote by Nietzsche that ‘we should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once’. You can learn more here.
- A summer homework list from a teacher in Italy has gone viral and I think this shows how deeply we all want to step back from technology and reconnect with friends and family, with nature and, above all, with ourselves. It includes the assignments to take walks, read a lot, watch the sunrise, dream big and be good. You’ll love it. Read more here.
- Stylist Magazine’s 24 June issue features Sweden. It’s been rated one of the happiest countries in the world with a populace united in their ethos of spending time outdoors, eating fresh and seasonal food, not letting work overtake life and redefining what success looks like. My very brief visit to Stockholm last July was a taste and I’m longing to go back and have another look. You can explore further here.
I was always the serious, quiet child looking at life as it happened around me. My curiosity and choices have brought me far, but I often forget to live with a light touch. Think it’s time to make a few play dates…who’s in?