Two dogs are frolicking in water.


Are you pro-play or anti-play? After recent concern about study crowding out exercise, schools are making recess periods longer and more frequent to enhance emotional and cognitive development, and similar benefits are available for adults as well.

Play differs from person to person and from one culture to another, but there seems to be wide agreement that play reduces stress and promotes better development.

Play has evolved, perhaps, to provide practice in physical and social skills. This implies that play deprivation must harm development, and this seems to be the case in some rodents and humans.

The brain, of course, is physically inert. How can changes in what the rest of the body does improve what the brain does? I’d suggest considering that the mind is not restricted to the brain and that play puts many brains in touch with each other.

Though one recent study remarked that “…there is currently no integrated framework for conducting a multimodal analysis of play that spans brain, cognition and behavior”, we might turn to the biopsychosocial model for enlightenment.

Rubik's Cube, partly solved

BIO: What’s going on in the brain often reflects what the body is doing. This is frequently called embodied cognition and it has a long evolutionary history. Or think about extended cognition. Or both! The mind is not (just) the brain, so do we think with the body?

There is evidence of embodied emotions as well, which may go beyond smiling, supported by a lot of unconscious “machinery” in the brainstem.

What about blinking? We hardly notice blinks. Yet it’s as if when the eyes blink, the mind blinks, too, and time stops.

If the body and mind study together throughout our lives, is it a big leap to imagine them playing together, too?

PSYCHO: Seeing children at play is so common an experience that it’s easy to assume that it evolved as one of the basic human instincts; but that would be a hasty mistake.

I would not argue against the healthy advantages of play or its wide occurrence among mammals, but the limited evidence of a genetic contribution to play as a trait and, in fact, the difficulty of defining play a unitary trait should make us hesitate before making pronouncements.

Pronouncements are easy to come by: “Nobody has to teach young mammals to play” (Gray) and “PLAY is instinctive, voluntary, and spontaneous“ (International Play Association) are two examples. It is tempting to label play, language, or the breastcrawl as innate, instinctive, and hard-wired without asking for proof or even thinking what such proof might consist of.

What does “innate” or “hard-wired” mean? Those terms are in constant use by popular magazines. As this site shows, we progress from an inborn brain architecture to innovative modifications of the circuitry. (See the “key concepts” links at that site.) Brain development is choreographed, in a way.

And “instinct”? On the one hand we can simply define instinctive behavior to be an inborn result of evolution. That’s how a lot of people look at it. The problem they run into is finding examples. It’s sometimes hard to prove a negative. Proving that any particular behavior was entirely wired without input from experience is next to impossible, since the environment starts to control which genes express themselves beginning at conception.

To take it a step further, brain development is not programmed entirely by genes but interacts with the environment beginning in the embryo. This is the nature-nurture interaction. The mother’s nutrition and the fetal and infant environment shape brain development as well as heredity. The serve-and-return interaction between the baby and its caregivers helps to build brain circuitry. Damaging stress, like infant abuse, can block normal development.

Modern genetic research has made it clear that behavior always reflects an interaction between genes and the environment. No behavior is learned without a hereditary component, just as no behavior is inherited without some influence of the environment.

The costs and benefits of play are incompletely known. For some people the costs may far outweigh the benefits enjoyed by the majority. Video games are a serious problem for a few, but even widespread prevalence would not by itself signify a danger. Like everything in psychology, it deserves more study.

SOCIAL: Play gives us a chance to practice, according to Mr. Rogers and others. Practicing social skills in play supports later learning of the “academic” kind.

Even though social play may often be complex, the more carefully we define the trait the closer we’ll come to tracing a path of its evolution. I wonder what ancestor of rats and humans first conceived of fun?

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