Play Doesn't End With Childhood: Why Adults Need Recess Too

Aug 6, 2014
Originally published on August 6, 2014 4:29 pm

This week, NPR Ed is focusing on questions about why people play and how play relates to learning.

More and more research suggests that healthy playtime leads to healthy adulthood.

Childhood play is essential for brain development. As we've reported this week, time on the playground may be more important than time in the classroom.

But playtime doesn't end when we grow up. Adults need recess too.

The question is, why? To answer this question, Dr. Stuart Brown says we need to clearly define what play is. He's head of a nonprofit called the National Institute for Play.

"Play is something done for its own sake," he explains. "It's voluntary, it's pleasurable, it offers a sense of engagement, it takes you out of time. And the act itself is more important than the outcome."

So, let's take gambling, for instance. A poker player who's enjoying a competitive card game? That's play, says Brown. A gambling addict whose only goal is to hit the jackpot? Not play.

Brown says that children have a lot to learn from what he calls this "state of being," including empathy, how to communicate with others, and how to roll with the punches.

"Those kinds of resilient learning processes [are] different than what occurs in adult play," he says. "But the harmonics of this occur in adulthood as well."

The Promenade Cafe in San Francisco is a place where you can see some of these "harmonics" in action. On a Sunday morning, small groups of grown men are huddled around little figurines.

This is where a gaming group called SF Games meets. It was founded almost two decades ago by David Kaye, and the group is dedicated to what are called German-style games.

The difference from traditional American games like Monopoly, he explains, is that "people are not excluded." In other words, "in some games you get to a certain point and somebody's knocked out of the game so they have nothing to do for the next half-hour."

Kaye says the more inclusive German-style games have helped this group create "this incredible community over the years."

Which, research shows, is a big reason that grown-ups play. It helps us maintain our social well-being. And it's not just board games that do this, but soccer leagues, or playing paintball in the woods. And not just after-work recreation, but team-building exercises in corporate offices. Playing is how we connect.

OK, so that's one reason grown-ups play. Another is to stay sharp.

"My dad, his hobby was calculus," says Jane Alexander Perry. This is her first visit to the SF Games group, and she's here to bring ideas back to her own gaming group, which meets once a month to play a version of Scrabble. "He would show me different puzzles to do with different numbers and cards, and I grew up that way and I love it."

When Perry places her tiles on the board for a triple word score, she may well be lowering her risk of Alzheimer's disease. A number of studies suggest that playing games or doing puzzles helps maintain memory and thinking skills.

But of course she's not here just to dodge degenerative brain disease. "I think it's important for adults to be silly."

So, grown-up play involves being silly and playing games. Winning prizes on the boardwalk. In that way, grown-up play is a whole lot like child's play, isn't it?

Well, except when it's not.

"Thank you for calling the Power Exchange, America's naughtiest play space."

That's the phone hotline for the Power Exchange, a sex club in San Francisco, founded by Mike Powers.

Here people can act out fantasies in a safe, sex-positive environment. The type of play that goes on here surely isn't for everyone, but Powers says we all have our own playful ways of being intimate with one another.

He and his girlfriend have their own version of cat-and-mouse that they play, which he says keeps a fire under their relationship.

"We break up about every three months," Powers says with a laugh. "It's a game and we both play it. We're two responsible mature adults, and everyone says we're ridiculous. But it's the game we play."

That may not be a game every couple wants to play. But according to psychiatrist Brown, play helps many people keep their partnerships healthy.

"The couples who sustain a sense of mutual playfulness with each other tend to work out the wrinkles in their relationships much better than those who are really serious," he says.

So adults play for many important reasons: building community, keeping the mind sharp and keeping close the ones you love.

And, says Brown, there's another big factor: If we don't play, there are serious consequences.

"What you begin to see when there's major play deprivation in an otherwise competent adult is that they're not much fun to be around," he says. "You begin to see that the perseverance and joy in work is lessened and that life is much more laborious."

In other words, all work and no play makes everyone a whole lot duller.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Recess is one of the most important parts of the school day. It's when many kids socialize, test their boundaries, get exercise and just play. More and more research indicates that healthy play leads to a healthy adulthood. But growing up doesn't mean an end to playtime.

The NPR Ed team is reporting all week on play and how it relates to learning. Today, Sami Yenigun looks at some of the reasons why adults should break for recess too.

SAMI YENIGUN, BYLINE: Wildwood, New Jersey is a beach town in the south of the state. It's kind of like one big playground - roller coasters, helicopter rides and boardwalk games for miles.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: Well, it's a water race game and you compete against each other.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: This one, all you have to do is stand behind the line and you just shoot.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 3: You got to make three balls in the hole.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 4: You place the bets on the lay down and if it lands on the same spot on the wheel, you get a prize.

YENIGUN: It's a sensory overload of happy kids running around with stuffed animals twice their size, dragging their parents in tow. Victor Delrio mans a "Wheel Of Fortune" type game and says, on this playground games are not just for kids, but for grownups too.

VICTOR DELRIO: They come with their kids and they want to show their kids a good time but at the same time, they don't even realize it, they're kind of like reliving their childhood at the same time, you know?

YENIGUN: In childhood, play is essential for brain development. As NPR's Jon Hamilton reported this morning, time on the playground can be more important than time in the classroom. But what exactly do we mean when we say play?

Dr. Stuart Brown is head of a nonprofit called the National Institute for Play and wrote a book on the subject. Here's how he defines it.

STUART BROWN: Play is something that's done for its own sake. It's voluntary. It's pleasurable. It offers a sense of engagement into what it is that really you enjoy. It takes you out of a sense of time and the act or the experience of play itself is more important than the outcome.

YENIGUN: So take gambling for instance. A poker player who's enjoying a competitive card game? Play, says Brown. But an addict who's hell-bent on hitting the jackpot? Not play. Stuart Brown says that when we were kids we had a lot to learn from this state of being.

BROWN: The language of how you get along with others and how to develop empathy and how to sort of roll with the punches; those kinds of resilient learning processes that are part of the natural history of play of most cultures for kids is different than what occurs in adult play. But the harmonics of this occur in adulthood as well.

YENIGUN: So what is play for grown-ups? Well, it's a lot of things and we do it for a lot of reasons.

DAVID KAYE: You also start with one settler and one army, anywhere adjacent to your city.

YENIGUN: On the other side of the country at The Promenade Café in San Francisco, a group of grown-ups gather twice a week to play games. One table is a group of guys huddled around multi-colored figurines. They're playing a board game version of a popular computer game, "Sid Meier's Civilization."

KAYE: Building new cities - you build new cities with your settlers. You won't be able to knock over barbarian villages.

YENIGUN: In the middle of this room is David Kaye who founded this group, called SF Games, nearly two decades ago.

He says, most of the games here are German-style which are different from say, "Monopoly."

KAYE: German-style games; people are not excluded. In other words, on some games you get to a certain point and somebody's knocked out of the game. So they have nothing to do for the next half hour or whatever as the rest of the people play the game.

YENIGUN: So German-style games Kaye says, are a better way to create the type of gaming vibe he's looking for.

KAYE: SF Games has formed this incredible community over the years and that, to me, is what it's all about.

YENIGUN: And this is a big reason we play; play is social. It's how many of us maintain our social well-being. Not just board games but soccer leagues, or paintball in the woods. Not just after work, but team building exercises in corporate offices. Playing is how we connect. So that's one reason grown-ups play. Another? To stay sharp.

JANE ALEXANDER: My dad, his hobby was calculus. So he would show me different puzzles to do with numbers and cards. And I grew up that way and I love it.

YENIGUN: It's Jane Alexander's first time at SF Games. She's on a mission to bring some ideas back to her own games group. She and her friends meet up about once a month to play "Upwords," sort of a 3-D version of "Scrabble."

While she's placing her tiles, Alexander may well be lowering her risk of Alzheimer's. A number of studies suggest that playing games or puzzles might help keep up memory and thinking skills. But Alexander's not just here to dodge brain disease.

ALEXANDER: Well, I think it's important for adults to be silly.

YENIGUN: Being silly and playing board games, winning prizes on the boardwalk - grown-up play is a whole lot like child's play. Except when it's not.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE CALL)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hi. Thank you for calling the Power Exchange, America's naughtiest play space.

YENIGUN: Fact is, adult play is code for sex. The Power Exchange in San Francisco is a sex club founded by Mike Powers. The type of play that goes on here surely isn't for everyone but Powers says, we all have our own playful ways of being intimate with one another. He and his girlfriend have their own version of cat and mouse that they play, which he says keeps a fire under their relationship. They game is they break up and get back together again, and again and again.

MIKE POWERS: We probably break up every three months, you know? But it's a game. It's a game and we both play it. We're two responsible, mature adults, you know? Everybody we know says, you guys are ridiculous; but it's a game we play.

YENIGUN: Again, maybe not a game that every couple wants to play but according to psychiatrist Stuart Brown, play can help partners stay happy.

BROWN: The couples who sustain the sense of mutual playfulness with each other and that that's significant for each, tend to work out the wrinkles in their relationship much better than those who are really serious.

YENIGUN: Building community, maintaining the mind and keeping close the ones you love. Plus, if we don't play, there are consequences.

BROWN: What you begin to see when there's major play deprivation in an otherwise competent adult is that they're not much fun to be around. You begin to see that their perseverance and joy in work is lessened. And that life is much more laborious.

YENIGUN: In other words, all work and no play makes everyone a whole lot duller.

Sami Yenigun, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.