The Health Benefits of Play Time

Analysis by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

Story at-a-glance -

  • Humans, like most other animals, have a natural play instinct, and this instinct has important benefits. It allows us to fine-tune our motor skills, develop social skills and emotional resilience and learn our limitations, and is essential for normal, healthy brain development
  • The brains of play-deprived rats are underdeveloped in the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for impulse control and decision making. They also have disorganized neuronal growth and irregular neuronal cells
  • The replacement of physical play with technological gadgetry has many experts worried, as research shows playing makes people smarter, braver and kinder
  • To qualify as play, the behavior must be done for no apparent reason, be repetitive, sometimes in an exaggerated way, be spontaneous and done when relaxed and not stressed
  • Play has the ability to bridge the gap between wildly differing species. It has a language of its own, and allows us to communicate on a deep, nonverbal level with a whole range of life

If you’re like most, you’re probably not in the habit of scheduling play time, and if you have kids, they’re probably not spending much time playing outdoors with their friends. After watching the DW documentary, “The Power of Play,” you may reconsider these choices. As noted in the video, humans, like most other animals, have a natural play instinct, and this instinct has important benefits.

Far from being a total waste of time, play allows us to fine-tune our motor skills, develop social skills and emotional resilience and learn our limitations, and is actually essential for normal, healthy brain development. In animals, play even boosts their chances of survival. Sadly, the youth of today play nowhere near as much as previous generations. As noted in “The Power of Play,” children now play outdoors half as much as their parents did.

It is clear that nearly everyone will benefit from play time. After watching this documentary I realized my play time is being in the ocean most every day I am home and playing in the waves riding the surf. It is something I never seem to tire of. What is your play time?

Play Makes You Smarter, Kinder and Braver

The replacement of physical play with technological gadgetry has many experts worried, as research shows playing makes people smarter, braver and kinder. The documentary features Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play, a nonprofit corporation “committed to bringing the unrealized knowledge, practices and benefits of play into public life.”1

As noted by Brown, play is hardwired into most animals, and even has a language of its own. When dogs play, for example, you’ll see a lot of play bows, paw slapping, tail wagging and so on. All of these are part of dogs’ play language.

Importantly, animals will instinctively keep the play going without one taking over and dominating the other. There’s a distinct give and take in the interaction. It’s also infectious — it draws other participants in and encourages social interactions.

5 Criteria of Play

So, what exactly is play? Gordon Burghardt, a reptile ethologist at the University of Tennessee, has come up with five criteria of play. As explained in “The Power of Play,” to qualify as play, the behavior must:

  1. Be done for no apparent reason
  2. Be done repetitively
  3. Sometimes in an exaggerated way
  4. Be spontaneous
  5. Be done when relaxed and not stressed

Burghardt came up with these criteria after learning about the importance of play and realizing — after careful observation — that even reptiles exhibit play behavior. Fish, another animal you wouldn’t necessarily think of as playful, also enjoy it and demonstrate these play behaviors.

Play Is an Interspecies Form of Communication

Again and again, researchers are surprised by how common play is in the animal kingdom, and how it has the ability to bridge the gap between wildly differing species. One example featured in the video is the playful game that spontaneously developed between a giant Pacific octopus and a zoo handler.

While we don’t yet fully understand how, it’s clear that play allows us to communicate on a deep, nonverbal level with a whole range of life, not just our own species. “The impulse to have fun seems to cross all sorts of boundaries in the animal kingdom,” the narrator says.

Evidence of this continues to grow, as people film and share interspecies interactions on YouTube and social media. Seals and dogs, kangaroos and deer, cats and squirrels, elephants and birds — the examples of interspecies play go on.

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What Bonobos Can Teach Us About Play

“The Power of Play” also features Elisabetta Palagi, a primatologist at the University of Pisa, Italy, who studies the play of bonobos. As one of our closest primate relatives,2 bonobos “can give us a lot of information about the development of our behavior,” she says.

Interestingly, bonobos are known not just for their playfulness but also their peacefulness. They do not kill each other. When two groups of chimpanzees meet, they will fight to establish supremacy. When bonobos meet, they play.

According to Palagi, play allows the bonobos to establish strong interpersonal bonds, and these bonds increase everyone’s chances of survival. She also points out that play is important for the development of social skills, and this is true both for monkey and humans.

A major part of being able to interact peacefully within a social group is the ability to perceive and interpret the emotional states of others, and play allows youngsters to build and perfect this important skillset.

Play Fosters Empathy

To assess how well bonobos can read each other’s emotions, Palagi records the bonobos’ reactions to avatars expressing various emotions. Yawning after you see another person yawning is a telltale sign of empathy, for example, and bonobos will do this as well.

Around the age of 4, human children begin exhibiting this kind of mimicking behavior. As explained by Palagi, mimicking or mirroring is a way to put yourself in the same emotional state as the other.

Bonobos, she found, will repeatedly mimic the expressions of the avatars, which raises the possibility that it is their ability to read each other’s facial expressions that allows them to maintain such peaceful interactions.

Palagi points out that it’s still unclear whether empathy is the basis of play, or play the basis of empathy, but the two clearly appear to go hand-in-hand. Science is also starting to uncover the intricate connections between play and the development of compassion, and empathy plays a big role.

Not Just Practice for Adulthood

Researchers used to think play was little more than practice for adulthood, but more recent studies have found gaping holes in this theory. Kittens that play more than others do not become better hunters, for example, and bear cubs that play with their siblings still spend most of their adult life alone.

“Clearly, there’s more than meets the eye,” the narrator says. Research by Jonathan Pruitt, a behavioral ecologist at McMaster University, has helped shed more light on the purpose of play.

He studies social spiders — spider species that, contrary to the norm, will form large colonies and inhabit the same web. Of the 50,000 or so species of spider we know of, only 20 of them fall into this category.

Pruitt is particularly interested in the social spiders’ courtship play. Mature males will perform a courtship dance for immature females that are still too young to mate. In response, the female will enter a receptive posture, and the male will place his genitals on the outside of hers. This is repeated multiple times.

At first, Pruitt assumed this allowed the spiders to practice for mating in maturity, but as his studies continued, he began to believe that this behavior was simply a form of play — and a very important kind of play at that.

Pruitt and his team eventually discovered that females allowed to play in this manner produced much larger egg cases — and thus more offspring — than females that had been prevented from playing, and the size of the egg cases were in proportion to the amount of play they’d been exposed to.

Females that play also live longer than those prevented from playing, and are less aggressive and less likely to kill their partner after mating. Pruitt has come to believe play has deep and purposeful evolutionary roots, as it appears virtually all over the animal kingdom. Indeed, it appears it may play a much more important role than we’ve ever imagined.

The Purpose of Play

Canadian research also provides significant clues about the purpose of play. As shown in the video, young domesticated rats will playfully attack each other, trying to get to the opponent’s neck. The opponent will roll and wrestle free. As in all play, the animals take turns during this mock-attack, rough-and-tumble play.

In one experiment led by behavioral neuroscientist Sergio Pellis, juvenile rats were removed from other juveniles and raised with adult rats only, which are not prone to playing. What they discovered is that play-deprived rats fail to develop normal social skills.

At the end of the experiment, the brains of the play-deprived rats were also examined, revealing underdevelopment in the part of the brain responsible for impulse control and decision making. In other words, play actually alters the prefrontal cortex of the brain.

Compared to rats that played, the play-deprived ones also had disorganized neuronal growth and irregular neuronal cells. It was the biggest breakthrough of Pellis’ career, but it also caused him serious worry. If rat brains are unfavorably altered by lack of physical play, what’s happening to the children of our day?

“My concern is that denying young children to engage in play has led them to not getting the kinds of experiences that actually prepare them to live effectively in an unpredictable world,” Pellis says.

He cites research showing that as childhood play has declined, rates of depression and psychopathology have increased. Pellis’ groundbreaking work is now being expanded on by University of Tennessee researcher Matthew Cooper, a behavioral neuroscientist, who is investigating the connection between childhood play and the “ability to deal with life’s hard knocks.”

Play Is Crucial for Development of Emotional Resiliency

The prefrontal cortex plays an important role in our ability to deal with and bounce back from stress. Cooper works with juvenile Siberian hamsters, which instinctively engage in mock-attack play. Adult hamsters prefer solitude, and putting two of them together typically results in vicious fighting.

The loser suffers what’s referred to as “social defeat.” Normal hamsters, meaning those who have grown up play-fighting, will shrug it off and recover rather quickly. When faced with another opponent, it will fight to win again.

Play-deprived hamsters, on the other hand, are far less resilient. After losing one fight, the play-deprived hamster simply submits when faced with another opponent. They act fearful and run away rather than defending their turf, which is suggestive of social anxiety.

“Whether it’s in the animal world or in the school yard, play helps us prepare to cope with life’s ups and downs,” the narrator says. “But the way children play has changed dramatically. A generation ago, it didn’t take much to have fun. A piece of rope. A few twigs.

Children in the United States now spend less time outdoors than any previous generation — [just] four to seven minutes a day of outdoor play, versus 7.5 hours a day in front of a screen. And they’re missing out on a lot more than just fresh air and exercise.”

There’s More to Play Than Meets the Eye

Brown understood the importance of play long before there was science to back up his suspicions. In the past, it was considered unimportant and unnecessary, and if children could be doing something else, they should. We’re now starting to realize the true importance of play, and the ramifications of play-deprivation.

Having investigated the play background of 6,000 individuals, Brown has shown that having fun is indeed a serious matter. “What you find is that it’s necessary for a sense of optimism and fulfillment,” Brown says, “for a sense of competency, for a sense of authentic self.”

In short, play is important for the generation of well-being. Like Pellis, Brown is extremely concerned about the dramatic drop-off in play. He believes the lack of play we see in today’s children is a real crisis, and is at the heart of the shocking rise in mental health problems and behavioral problems among our youth.

The Risky Play Paradox

Another remarkable and paradoxical scientific finding is that engaging in risk during childhood is a crucial factor of preventing injuries. As noted by Mariana Brussoni, a developmental psychologist at UBC/BC Children’s Hospital, by engaging in risky play, children learn how their bodies work, they discover what they’re comfortable with and what they’re not, and they learn their own limits and how the world works.

In short, “they’re learning crucial risk-management skills,” Brussoni says. Far from keeping your kids safe, discouraging them from outdoor play can actually backfire, as play-deprived children fail to gain this fundamental knowledge, which places them at greater risk for serious injury — and phobias.

A child that has never experienced climbing, for example, is far more likely to develop a fear of heights than a child who has explored and has gotten used to the “fear-fun” of heights.

In short, the research strongly shows that risky play — play where there is a chance of injury and where the paths and outcomes aren’t certain — is important for character-building, emotional resilience and self-development. The sense of freedom that outdoor play brings also encourages creativity.

Brussoni encourages parents to weigh the possibility of an unlikely event (your child being seriously injured) versus the very real impact that outdoor play-deprivation has on your child’s long-term mental and physical health and development.

It’s Time to Bring Back Outdoor Peer Play

Interestingly, Brussoni’s research also shows that children, especially girls, are far more likely to play outdoors when unsupervised. What this tells us is that having a sense of independence and self-determination encourages the willingness to be playful, and indeed, the opposite is precisely what feeds depression and anxiety.

As noted in “The Power of Play,” outdoor play began diminishing in the 1980s, and those born around that time are now entering parenthood without the many fond memories of rough-and-tumble, sometimes risky peer play that their own parents grew up with.

As a result, they’re less likely to understand the value of outdoor play, and less likely to encourage it. The end result could be that we’re entering a sort of amnesia, where people simply cannot remember what it’s like to play in the woods or climb trees, because they’ve never done it.

And, far from being a loss of simple fun, this can have serious consequences for the health of future children, as it actually prevents the normal brain development necessary for empathy, compassion and personal well-being. The answer is self-evident: Encourage your kids to play, especially outdoors — and play more yourself too, regardless of your age.