• Blog
  • by: Stuart Brown, MD. National Institute for Play
  • May 07, 2021

The Science behind Intergenerational Play-Vol 1

As PlayCore blog readers who follow my writings have already noted, I am a fan of uniting the deeply embedded human play nature which we all possess with those influences and life opportunities that set in motion this wonderful component of our human spirit. And my focus has been and will continue to be on the “science” that supports Real Play and bringing the science and practices that promote play into the lives of all ages more fully. So it is continual fun and inspiration for me to realize that PlayCore and its range of products and programs are in sync with the broad reach of play science as it can now be demonstrated. This makes PlayCore a company like none other. So this entry will continue this emphasis, and will provide a focus on the importance of MIXED AGE PLAY.

I was fortunate to have an older brother who allowed me to join his pals in sand lot games and free play that characterized after school and weekends during my elementary school years. Looking back now through decades of play research that I have enjoyed, the time spent in my formative years with multiple opportunities for play with older boys shaped my sense of who I have become, and gave me the annealing lessons that mixed age play produces. It also allows me to validate its importance for life as kids as well as providing us with a template for later adulthood. So I come at this subject with both the early experiential assurance of its value, supplemented by the in-depth scholarship and research that my own research and the substantive science based data that many play pioneers have provided.

A reminder… “ we are built to play, and built by play," and we all are fundamentally members of a playful,  social species. As you know from previous blogs, we share these basic collective characteristics with many of our animal cousins, and in research settings which measure the effects of play or the consequences of its elimination in the lives of animals, they find that the results of the latter are devastating!

The outcomes of such controlled laboratory observations, accomplished in depth with colonies of rats by Jaak Panksepp and Sergio Pellis, show the value of not only play itself, but of the learning that it requires play to inculcate cooperation and tolerance of other complexities in pack behavior. Play deprived rats just cannot get along with each other, mate normally, or handle aggression. Play is clearly necessary for this species to survive. There is much we can learn from this scientific evidence. 

We humans are, of course a very different species, but our in-depth brain circuits and neurotransmitters that govern the motivation to care and get along with each other and play together are very similar. 

From these objective animal play lab findings, the effects of play adequacy or deprivation on a wide variety of animal behaviors, such as pack belonging, maze learning (memorization), brain size, adaptation to stress, etc. the accumulated data from animal play researchers is quantitative and useful for extending its findings to a wide variety of similar human situations. Their life work and that of other animal play scholars and researchers grounds play science, and has, along with a growing body of human play data, helped play science to emerge as a new coherent and important discipline.

Additionally, devastating human circumstances such as the tragic effects of early social deprivation in the past, such as the well reported results from the stark (Ceausescu era) Romanian orphan nurseries is tragic, and the long term follow up of these children tragically demonstrates the devastation of their early deprivations. Fortunately, by heartening contrast, other socially rich orphan nurseries, in particular the Pikler post WWII Hungarian nurseries provide substance for the value of warm relationships and playful opportunities that characterized the Pikler settings. Long term follow-up of these Pikler orphan “graduates” reveals the life fulfilling and competent life adjustments that resulted from otherwise high risk orphan children, and demonstrates the rewarding positive long-term effects that this nourishing and multiage highly playful settings produced. So it is evident from animal and many human situations that developing complex social species, ours included, require early multiple contact social play enrichment for the essentials of healthy social normalcy to develop.  

In linking these animal and varied human observations, I am reminded of conclusions from my own research that allows play deprivation to be identified as correlated with serious criminal behavior. What we discovered is how serious early and continuing play deprivation had been in shaping, or lacking to shape competency and the ability to handle aggression into the lives of incarcerated homicidal males (compared with a large matched cohort) and how different were the lives of the “play adequate” comparison populations. These and other associated findings led our research staff to conclude that “belonging” and being morally connected to a community requires adequate complex play experiences. Particularly for young  homicidal males, we found that safe gradually more complex rough and tumble play appeared to provide the social learning  and empathy awareness necessary to modify harmful aggressive behavior. 

So just as animals need complex playful social interactions to function communally, it’s not too great a stretch to assume that we, too as a playful social species, also need complex play experiences to “belong” and have empathy for our fellow playful associates. Yes, I believe the animal and clinical human data demonstrates that it is profoundly necessary for humans to engage early on in progressively more complex social play as a shared solid developmental social neurobiological need.

So, let us affirm here again that experiencing early and continuing multiage social playful experiences are foundational elements for us all to activate and understand as being essential for fulfilled competent living.  

The pandemic’s isolation and its effects on child mental and physical health is evident. However, the need for lifelong play, the value of early mixed aged play, and yes, play beyond childhood is emerging as important doctrines that play science is confirming.

Future blogs will continue to affirm the benefits of mixed age play as an antidote to adult burn-out, and offer gateways to more fulfilling lives.  

Those who have had the pleasure of studying child development, know and appreciate the physical, cognitive, emotional, and social benefits of play. Mixed age play for kids is nature’s way of preparing them for more complex group living.  Now we can combine these positive aspects of early play with scientific evidence of how harmful play deprivation is to our species, at any age.

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