Neurodevelopment and Play: More Fun than it Sounds

By: Mike Sullivan, MA, LMHC
Alumni and Family Services Director

If you have never heard Dr. Lorraine Freedle laugh heartily, you may not know her very well. In a recent presentation at a symposium on neurodevelopment and play, Leveraging Change Agents in the Treatment Process, an audience member commented on the comforting and authentic nature of Dr. Freedle’s “belly laugh.” Many others in the audience nodded their heads and chuckled in agreement. Dr. Freedle has a playful way of engaging an audience, which unsurprisingly, is neurologically informed. I was lucky enough to be invited by Dr. Freedle to co-present on the importance of play, wherein we facilitated play activities aimed at experiential teaching on the many benefits of play entitled The Archetype of Play and the Neuroception of Safety: Primal Change Agent. Needless to say, the presentation was a lot of fun!

Mike Sullivan, MA, LMHC

Mike Sullivan, MA, LMHC

Play is valuable on many levels, which is evident across species. It is not only humans who play; animals play too. Play has been observed in most animal species, and interestingly, even between animal species. What is evolutionarily significant about play? If it didn’t contribute to natural selection, it would have ultimately detracted from a species ability to survive and would have been wiped out of existence long ago. On a basic level, play is where people and animals learn to socialize and navigate obstacles. It is the playground of practice, allowing us to develop tools, awareness, and resilience for overcoming more complex obstacles later in life. Beyond that it allows us to engage our imagination, which has proven to be an asset even greater than knowledge. After all, one of Einstein’s most famous quotes highlights that “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

While it doesn’t take much convincing to teach adults that play is valuable in childhood, some remain skeptical when approached with the idea that it is critical in adulthood as well. In a culture that is achievement and performance driven, what room is there for play? If an activity is not aimed at getting me further toward my goals, why would I waste my time? Well, play lies deep in the sub-brain, and still needs to be stimulated in adulthood. It has implications for our mood and wellbeing, as well as affects our social relationships and meaning we make of the world. While there is a complex neural network stimulated through play, look around and observe what you notice from a behavioral perspective. You may not see adults playing on monkey bars (well, sometimes you do!); you often see them participating in adult forms of play – humor, sports, games, and love. Most parents say that having kids is the best thing that ever happened to them, and fondly reflect on the play within their family story.

In her presentation, Dr. Freedle drew heavily on the teachings of Dr. Stuart Brown, the founder of the National Institute for Play. In his book Play: How it Shapes the Brain and Invigorates the Soul, Dr. Brown maintains, “Play is the highest form of love.” Beyond the biochemical firing occurring on a molecular level in the brain, we seek connection and belonging, and play serves as the main conduit. Can you imagine a life without play? No fantasy, no storytelling, no humor, and importantly – no relationships or connection… it is difficult to imagine. We need to continue to nurture play in ourselves and communities. As, Dr. Brown says, “the opposite of play is not work, it is depression.” For more on Dr. Stuart Brown’s research, you can view his TED talk here.

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