Taking Play Seriously


I’m really pumped about this article about the value of play. It’s the cover article of my favorite magazine—the NY Times Sunday Magazine. Taking Play Seriously.

I just finished reading it and it explores the question: Is there really an evolutionary or developmental need for play and what is lost when people play less?

The author, Robin Marantz Henig, explores the biological and sociological research on play in animals, children and adults.

Some of the most interesting and valuable pull out quotes:

from Stuart Brown, president of the National Institute of Play: Play is part of the “developmental sequencing of becoming a human primate. If you look at what produces learning and memory and well-being, play is a s fundamental as any other aspect of life , including sleep and dreams.”

In fact, most species have from 10 to 100 distinct play signals that they use to solicit play or to reassure one another during play-fighting that it’s still all just in fun. In humans, the analogue to the chimp’s play face is a child’s smile, an open expression that indicates there is no real anger involved even in gestures that can look like a fight.

When it comes to animal play, scientists basically agree that it’s mostly mammals that do it, and they basically agree that it’s a mystery why they do it, since there are so many good reasons not to. It all seems incredibly wasteful, and nature does not usually tolerate waste.

One popular view is the play-as-preparation hypothesis. In this perspective, play evolved because it is good preparation for adulthood. It is a chance for young animals to learn and rehearse the skills they will need for the rest of their lives, and to do so in a secure environment, where mistakes will have few consequences.

The synchrony suggested a few things to Byers: that play might be related to growth of the cerebellum, since they both peak at about the same time; that there is a sensitive period in brain growth, during which time it’s important for an animal to get the brain-growth stimulation of play; and that the cerebellum needs the whole-body movements of play to achieve its ultimate configuration.

‘‘I think of play as training for the unexpected,’’ Bekoff says. ‘‘Behavioral flexibility and variability is adaptive; in animals it’s really important to be able to change your behavior in a changing environment.’’ Play, he says, leads to mental suppleness and a broader behavioral vocabulary, which in turn helps the animal achieve success in the ways that matter: group dominance, mate selection, avoiding capture and finding food.

Through play, an individual avoids what he called the lure of ‘‘false endpoints,’’ a problem-solving style more typical of harried adults than of playful youngsters. False endpoints are avoided through play, Bateson wrote, because players are having so much fun that they keep noodling away at a problem and might well arrive at something better than the first, good-enough solution.

The most highly adaptive organisms, Gould wrote, are those that embody both the positive and the negative, organisms that ‘‘possess an opposite set of attributes usually devalued in our culture: sloppiness, broad potential, quirkiness, unpredictability and, above all, massive redundancy.’’ Finely tuned specific adaptations can lead to blind alleys and extinction, he wrote; ‘‘the key is flexibility.’’

Playing might serve a different evolutionary function too, he suggests: it helps us face our existential dread. The individual most likely to prevail is the one who believes in possibilities — an optimist, a creative thinker, a person who has a sense of power and control. Imaginative play, even when it involves mucking around in the phantasmagoria, creates such a person. ‘‘The adaptive advantage has often gone to those who ventured upon their possibility with cries of exultant commitment,’’ Sutton-Smith wrote. ‘‘What is adaptive about play, therefore, may be not only the skills that are a part of it but also the willful belief in acting out one’s own capacity for the future.’’

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About Shana Merlin

Merlin Works is the brainchild of Shana Merlin: improviser, teacher, and performer. Since 1996, she’s been leading classes that stretch people’s imaginations, push them out of their comfort zones, and make them laugh out loud for hours at a time.
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