The Power of Play

The Power of Play

Discussion date: Thu, Mar 29, 2018 at our weekly Thursday evening practice

Recently, the three of us (Carlos, Wonder, and Eric) were gathered together for a discussion that became rather playful. We shared stories and experiences that drew lots of laughter and seemed to break down the barriers of our vulnerability to the point that we were all willing to share at a little deeper level. This experience piqued our interest in bringing this topic to the Sangha for a Dharma discussion and an opportunity to play together, and so this will be our topic this Thursday evening. It will center on this question:

What is play and is it an important part of your mindfulness practice?

Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play, has spent an entire career studying play, and many of the insights we discuss below can be found in greater detail in a TED talk that he presented and a book he wrote on the topic of play. Dr. Brown became interested in play during his medical training while doing a pediatrics rotation. He was working in a pediatric Intensive Care Unit where he encountered a 2-year-old child who was extremely ill with viral meningitis and who was mostly unresponsive. He had been monitoring this young patient’s lab test results for several days, and one morning he came into the room and said hello to the young patient. The boy responded with a big smile and reached his hand out to him. Later that day, he checked the boy’s labs and noted that there were no differences from the day before, and in fact, the lab results did not show signs of improvement until 24-hours after the boy regained his ability to smile. It made a deep impression on him that it was the smile, which is the human play signal, that came back long before the 25 medical parameters that he had been monitoring.

Stuart describes play as a trait that is primal, pre-conscious, and pre-verbal. It runs deeper than species and gender, and most importantly, play is a thing of beauty that is better experienced than defined. Stuart does not give an absolute definition of play because its definition varies greatly by person, and it must be experienced to be fully understood. However, some characteristics of play are:

  1. Purposeless activity done for the sake of doing it with no other expected outcomes
  2. Spontaneous activity done for its own sake
  3. An activity that appears purposeless
  4. Guilt free purposelessness

The power of play is that it is intensely pleasurable, it energizes and enlivens us, it eases our burdens, it renews our natural sense of optimism, and play opens us up to new possibilities. Play promotes survival because it allows an individual to explore the natural world, push defined boundaries, and have fun in the process. Stuart’s research on play deprivation suggests that play shapes the brain. Play fosters empathy and makes complex social interactions and the development of group activities possible. In fact, Stuart argues that play lies at the core of creativity and innovation and allows us to be free of the constraints of time and to experience a diminished consciousness of self. It allows us to explore new ways of thinking and behaving so that we are not locked into a rigid way of doing things, are open to variation, see things in a different way, and gain new insights. Play allows us to break down barriers that separate us from others and fosters connection with others.

Often, the times that we feel most alive, that we remember most vividly, are moments of play. After the terror attacks of September 11, what people remembered about their loved ones was play moments. Family members remembered their loved ones who died in the attacks with the following titles to obituaries that appeared in the March 31, 2002 New York Times:

  1. A spit ball shooting executive
  2. A Frank Zappa fan
  3. The Lawn King
  4. A practical joker with a heart
  5. A lover of laughter

The ability to play is critical for happiness, sustaining social relationships, and being a creative and innovative person. According to Stuart, remembering how to play and making play a part of daily life is the most important factor to being fulfilled. From play we learn how the world works and how to have relationships, we learn how to discover and follow rules.

Sadly, in this modern technology driven society, we are taught that play is a waste of time as we age, and that we should be more focused on productivity. However, the research on play indicates that play is a catalyst, just a little play each day can make us happier, more fulfilled, and much more productive. It is important to find and exploit your play personality.

Our teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, captures the essence of play in this quote: “Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.”

This Thursday evening, we want to explore how we can play together. For our Dharma experience we will focus on play. Please feel free to bring a short, playful activity that you can share with the group. In addition, we will have some time at the end to discuss our experiences with play as we address these questions:

  1. How do you play?
  2. How important is play to your life and your mindfulness practice?
  3. How do play and mindfulness overlap in your life?

You are warmly invited to join us!

With much joy and playfulness,

Eric, Carlos, and Wonder


From Being Peace by Thich Nhat Hanh

From time to time, to remind ourselves to relax, to be peaceful, we must wish to set aside some time for a retreat, a day of mindfulness, when we can walk slowly, smile, drink tea with a friend, enjoy being together as if we are the happiest people on Earth. This is not a retreat, it is a treat. During walking meditation, during kitchen and garden work, during sitting meditation, all day long, we can practice smiling. At first you may find it difficult to smile, and we have to think about why. Smiling means that we are ourselves, that we have sovereignty over ourselves, that we are not drowned into forgetfulness. This kind of smile can be seen on the faces of Buddhas and bodhisattvas.


From Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul by Stuart Brown and Christopher Vaughan

 Types of Play

  1. Attunement Play
    • When an infant makes eye contact with her mother, each experiences a spontaneous surge of emotions, such as joy
  2. Imaginative and Pretend Play
    • The ability of the young child to create their own sense of their mind, and that of others, takes place through pretend play
    • Key to innovation and creativity
    • Deprivation studies uphold the importance of this type of play, as understanding/trusting others & developing coping skills depend on it
  3. Body Play and Movement
    • Self movement structures our knowledge of the world – innovation, flexibility, adaptability, resilience, have their roots in movement play
  4. Storytelling Narrative Play
    • Storytelling, the way most kids love to learn, is identified as the unit of human intelligibility
    • The ability of the young child to create their own sense of their mind, and that of others, takes place through pretend play
    • Key to innovation and creativity
    • Deprivation studies uphold the importance of this type of play, as understanding/trusting others & developing coping skills depend on it
  5. Object Play
    • The curiosity about and playingwith “objects” is a pervasive innately fun pattern of play, and creates its own “states” of playfulness
    • Hands playing with all types of objects help brains develop beyond strictly manipulative skills, with play as the driver
  6. TransformativeIntegrative and Creative Play
    • We can access fantasy-play to transcend the reality of our ordinary lives, and in the process germinate new ideas, and shape and re-shape them
  7. Social Play
    • From the simplest romp and wrestling of young animals to the most jocular and complex banter of close friends, social play is a key aspect of play behavior
  8. Creative Play
    • Creating music, brainstorming…these playful situations tap into our creative juices that are developed during pretend play and extract finished ideas that add function and progress to our lives.

Quotes on Play

“Youve got to keep the child alive; you cant create without it.” ~Joni Mitchell 

“Play is the highest form of research.” ~Albert Einstein

“The human urge to create comes from the play impulse.” ~Carla Hannaford 

“To stimulate creativity, one must develop the childlike inclination for play and the childlike desire for recognition.” ~Albert Einstein

“If you want creative workers, give them enough time to play.” ~John Cleese 

“Almost all creativity involves purposeful play.” ~Abraham Maslow 

“It is a happy talent to know how to play.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

“We dont stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing.” ~George Bernard

in: Dharma Topics
Discussion Date: Thu, Mar 29, 2018


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