Get ahead in life — go play more

Many see play as dessert at the end of a workday, the treat you get after getting important things out of the way. Not psychiatrist, internist and longtime researcher Dr. Stuart Brown, who lauds it as a main course.

In his book with Christopher Vaughan, "Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul" (Avery, $24.95), he shares case studies that show how incorporating play — whatever it is you love to do — makes you better at everything, from work to relationships.

Brown, 79, shared findings from the National Institute for Play, the nonprofit group he founded, and the need to incorporate more play into our test-driven culture.

He talked with us on the phone from his home in Carmel, Calif.

Q: How do you think the lack of play is hurting us in the long term?

A: In the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at NASA in Pasadena, Calif., the head of human resources told me he was having trouble replacing his master problem-solvers. He had his pick of the litter from Harvard, MIT, Caltech and elsewhere, but he found that even though they were brilliant, they weren't innovative in dealing with problems the way their predecessors had. He realized that his best problem-solvers had been kids who were tinkerers, who built sand castles, who took computers apart with their friends so they could understand their guts.

Q: What can parents and schools do to encourage play in their children?

A: There needs to be a transformation in our school system. In an ideal situation, I would say the learning of one's own essence begins in preschool, when you see some kids who are exuberant and extroverted and others who are introverted but may enjoy collecting things. When kids begin to get a sense of "Who am I, what is my real self?" of what they love and what works for them, they should not have to follow an assembly line. Instead, those talents should be brought into levels of mastery and excellence along with the proper acculturation, grace and courtesy necessary for civilized living.

Q: Many parents turn to organized sports as a way for their kids to play. Does that help?

A: Only if they love it. If it's not done for its own sake and the pleasure of doing the sport, if it's for someone other than the player, such as the parents or the coach, then they won't have the sense of joyfulness and exuberance that comes in playing a sport that suits your temperament.

Q: How can parents, teachers and kids find time for play amid the daily academic pressures?

A: Parents and kids are under tremendous strain, and what is not well understood is if you are into playful learning — learning from your own curiosity — your performance and your personal happiness will be at a heightened level. Play is not something you have to turn your back on. It's something you should embrace wisely and be understood as a necessity.

Q: How do you find play in your life?

A: I'm a tennis player. I've got a group of cronies, and when we play, we play hard, but we don't take ourselves too seriously. There isn't any formula for play. It's what works for you. It can be a nap or reading a book or taking a walk or having a fantasy.

Q: Based on your research, is there anything you wish you had done differently as a dad?

A: I was an ambitious young doctor and professor at a medical school who was very much into hardworking, competitive living. If I had my life to live over, I would have sent my kids out to play more.

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