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How Play Helps Us Work (and Live) Better



It isn’t just children who are being ‘worked’ to death, both in classrooms around the world, and in places where child labor, prostitution and slave wages are the norm – but putting aside the seriousness of this issue – let’s talk about what play really does for the human mind, body, and spirit.

Most schools value hoop jumping, and academic rigor. We develop small minds in our classrooms that hopefully figure out how to navigate the demands of a matrix-driven system.

These children are seldom truly engaged with their world though, and instead of learning to tackle problems with creativity and passion, they simply grow into adults who dial-it-in, and try to survive the matrix, never truly expressing their inherent wisdom – be they explorers, poets, visionaries, inventors, navigators or harmonizers – just for starters.

A paper titled Creativity: Asset or Burden in the Classroom?, written by Erik L. Wesby and V.L. Dawson details how the characteristics that teachers use to describe their favorite student correlate negatively with the characteristics associated with creativity.

In addition, though teachers say that they like creative students, because they are “sincere, responsible, good-natured and reliable,” their favorites were those that didn’t buck the system – the defunct, crumbling matrix that is still in place.

While we are taught from a very young age to work harder and longer (for ever-decreasing wages, benefits, and work-life balance) we are missing out on one of the secrets to true success – play!

When rats were raised in solitary confinement in an experiment in the 1960s, they were much dumber than those who were raised in an environment of exciting, toy-filled colonies. Since no (publically admitted) experiments of this nature have been conducted on humans, we have only studies like these to prove to us what happens when we get to play, instead of living in the grey of a work-a-day world.

For example, the rats who got to play, developed increased levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). This substance is key for maintaining healthy brain cells.


In studies that have involved live, human children, it has repeatedly been proven that kids who get to play on playgrounds, in classrooms,  and in green spaces do much better at testing and academic performance.

Just like sleep and dreams, play has major biological functions and provides benefits for us all says Dr. Stuart Brown, and according to further research, your brain is literally having a party when you play. The neurons are speaking to each other, across hemispheres, and from back to front, in ways it just doesn’t work when engaged in any other activity.

Or perhaps the study of a captive turtle will convince you of the importance of play. His name was Pigface, and he had been observed clawing and biting himself, to the dismay of zookeepers. He only began to lighten up when he was played with more often. But play is essential to this turtle’s well-being just as it is to our own. Researchers explain,

The brain generates chemical signals that encode a key component of fun: reward, the quality that makes us come back for more. Reward is conveyed within the brain by dopamine, a neurotransmitter that has many functions depending on where and when it is secreted. Dopamine is made by cells in the brain’s core, in the substantia nigra and the ventral tegmental area (see figure). In rats, dopamine and play are linked. Among chemicals that activate receptors for various neurotransmitters, including drugs that activate dopamine receptors, only a few increase play behavior.”

Even in young squirrel monkeys, play helps to lower cortisol levels associated with stress.

The same happens in bears. Unstressed bears are more likely to bear cubs within their first few years of life – but play is important for many reasons. The researchers continue,

Play activates other brain signaling systems as well, including the neurotransmitter norepinephrine (see figure). Its close relative epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) is released to the body as an initial component of stress-related signaling. As the main activator of the sympathetic nervous system, epinephrine mobilizes our energies for “fight, flight, fright, or fornication,” as the medical-school mnemonic goes.”

Play makes us better at finding food, a mate, and even keeping them with playful sex, but most importantly play alters our brains.


Our neurons are changed by play, and in some neurons, norepinephrine improves brain plasticity. The same is true for dopamine, which accounts for how reward leads to long-term changes to make us want more—neural plasticity mechanisms are strongly facilitated when reward occurs. This means we will WANT to take on the problems of the world, and figure out a better way instead of becoming complacent, apathetic, and weary.

Moreover, a study recently released by the Martin Prosperity Institute ranks 82 countries on their creativity. Go figure — creativity is a driving force in the economy. The study found great correlations between creativity and economic progress, human development, and happiness, among other factors.

Creative, playful people ignore social conventions. They are the Nikola Tesla’s, the Buckminster Fullers, the Bob Marleys  of our world. They sing, they laugh, they dance, and they THINK differently. Their expression in our world is exactly what we need right now. Not more of the same, mundane, route thinking and actions which have created the world we are living in today. Did you play today?

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