My little girl Cara is 4 years old. She’s a dote, and the source of great joy for me.
My boys are too, but they’re a little older than her now so the relationship is different than when they were her age.
I’ve learned a lot through my kids, and continue to do so. Although when the boys were younger I didn’t pay enough attention to the smaller things.
With Cara it’s different.
I’m watching her all the time and it’s fascinating for me to watch her develop as she grows older.
Children are naturally creative in their behaviour and a significant part of her behaviour is expressed through creative play and make believe.
She’ll quite happily play on her own making up stories and situations with a variety of toys and other things.
No different you might say from other children her age.
But not all children get the same chance to develop in a healthy way. Some children have what psychologist Stuart Brown calls dysfunctional “play histories”.
According to Brown’s research, when creative play is missing from our lives it can have dramatically negative effects.
What Happens When Play Is Missing
On August 2, 1966, Charles Whitman climbed the tower at The University of Texas with several weapons, ammunition and an intention to kill.
After a 90 minute shooting spree, 17 fatalities and 30 others wounded, he was eventually killed by police and vigilantes who stormed the building.
The day before, Whitman visited his mother’s apartment and killed her. He then went home, waited for his wife to fall asleep and killed her too.
By all accounts, the 25 year old was a stand-up member of his community, well liked by his neighbours.
He mastered the piano at a young age and recorded an IQ of 138 at age 6 under the Stanford Binet tests of intellectual ability.
He joined the marines at 18 and subsequently enrolled at the University of Texas studying engineering.
Charles Whitman seemed to have a bright academic future ahead of him.
But everything was not well under the surface.
A Suppressed Play History
In the aftermath of the killings, Professor Stuart Brown was assigned to investigate and he discovered that Whitman’s young life was missing a vital component.
His father was found to be a brutal man, subjecting Whitman, his brothers and mother to regular and sustained abuse.
The research revealed that in Charles Whitman’s infancy and childhood he experienced a “systematic suppression” of free play.
On it’s own, this case wouldn’t be enough to form a solid theory around the negative effects of play deprivation.
However, Brown went on to study murderers at Texas state prison and he found a similar trend.
90% of those studied, who it should be noted were not career criminals, were found to have play histories that were bizarre, deficient, deviant or completely absent of fun.
Yes these findings are the extreme end of the spectrum, but significant nonetheless.
Creative Play: It’s Not Just About Fun You Know!
When we talk about purposeless creative play we are not talking about aimless activity devoid of meaning.
Play indeed does have meaning, however we adults often assign meaning only to activities that appear to satisfy our need for logical outcomes.
That’s not surprising given that the standard working model for life is; study, get a job, contribute for 40 years then retire.
Play seems to have a secondary role in our society. Work and productivity take center stage.
We are encouraged from the day we leave kindergarten to pursue some ideal future or other.
It’s a never ending pursuit of a future that never gets here. Take your holidays, sure. Break for the weekend, sure. Take 15 mins for coffee, sure.
But take your entire life to do something you love and makes you happy?
No way pal. That’s completely irresponsible.
This is the real secret of life; to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play. – Alan Watts
Brown points out that individuals focused on the academic and logical aspects of life, that are absent largely of play, tend to be fixed and rigid.
They are unable to cope with complex stimuli.
Difficult situations and challenging life experiences are ones that take these people down. They don’t know how to respond.
Healthy brain development is seen to be directly related to positive play interactions.
From infancy right through childhood and into adulthood, play forms a vital component in social development, creativity, critical thinking skills and empathy with others.
People who don’t play are prone to depression, lack adaptability and have no grasp of irony.
Play doesn’t have to have an apparent purpose, but it does have a purpose.
How To Include Creative Play
As adults we are largely conditioned by our childhood experiences.
Yes, nature has a bearing of course, but childhood development has a big part to play.
If you are the creative type and were fortunate enough to have forward thinking free spirited parents who let you explore and play freely, it’s likely you have taken that freedom into your work.
But many of us are not that fortunate.
We’ve got hangups. Many of which we are not truly conscious of.
Our preconditioned responses to our environment and our experiences will dictate our success, whatever that success means.
If you find that you defeat yourself regularly, or that the results in your work are not what you’d expect or want, take solace in the fact there’s something you can do about it.
The Irony Of It All
Rough and tumble play helps children set their gauge.
When they’re playing there’s no intent to hurt anyone, it’s play after all. But in this process of play there is tuning of their gauge.
This is not only physical tuning but a cognitive one also.
It’s the same with what we call work. Work dominates our lives and this overdominance does not allow us tune our minds to the creative.
We get stuck in boxes.
It’s ironic really. We’ve spent the last 150 years or more doing what we were told by societal leaders and bosses.
We’ve followed the rules, worn the same clothes, gone to work in droves like robots, done the same thing day in day out until retirement and now they want to change it.
Organisations want to understand how to encourage their people to be more creative and innovative.
Above all they recognise that there is commercial advantage to this, however there are those who encourage creativity for all the right reasons.
It is my opinion that to be truly creative we must have a deeper sense of our individuality, then collaborate with others from that place.
How To Get Back To Creativity Through Play
Creativity is spontaneous, it’s often purposeless, it’s sometimes aimless and that’s how it should be.
I’ve written previously about purposeful accident. The premise being, when we lean towards a tendency to do things for the sake of it but with purpose, magic can happen.
So how can you play and therefore bring more creativity into your life?
Here’s a few ideas;
- Start practicing that hobby interest that you’ve been putting off for years
- Join a (not too serious) sports team and play regularly for the fun of it
- Get out into the woods with your kids at the weekend
- Learn to play the guitar
- If you’re an artist, learn a new art or craft
- If you’re strapped for cash get a part time job you’re not too serious about
- Bring your dog for a walk twice per day.
- If you don’t have a dog – get one!
- Go skydiving or paragliding
- Quit working long hours and start spending quality time with family.
Creative play is not just about having aimless fun, it is an essential element in healthy brain and social development.
The bonus is that it’s fun too.
I am personally, as a result of my own subjective experiences, in no doubt of the merits of play in normal creative development.
Play must not be an extracurricular activity but rather a fundamental aspect of education and everyday life.
Of course the creation of beautiful things is what the creative does, however if it’s not fun, if it’s not generating a state of freedom and joy then it’s not art.
Play more I say!
I’ll leave you with this quote from Stuart Brown;
I could ask you as a parent and any other parent that’s listening with a young child, you know, say a child over 3 but under 12. And if you just observe them and don’t try and direct them and watch what it is they like to do in play, you often will see a key to their innate talents. If those talents are given fairly free reign, then you see that there is a union between self and talent. And that this is nature’s way of sort of saying this is who you are and what you are.
For more on how play influences our lives, visit The Journal of Play
Purchase Stuart Brown’s book, Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul