Playing Can Keep You Out of Prison

Let’s just jump in with a question that could stir up some controversy, shall we?

If you see two preschool kids fighting, should you step in and make them stop?

Prior to listening to a most interesting interview between Stuart Brown and Krista Tippet, I thought I knew the answer. Yes, yes you should stop them. It turns out that fighting, wrestling, and playing are necessary for the soul. I don’t know how you feel about rats, and I’m not asking you to like them, but when adolescent rats were denied this kind of play, it had grave ramifications in their adulthood in terms of knowing who is friend or foe.

How much more so in humans? Turns out (at least in America, may your country be spared!) that murderers who had no history of violence or criminal behavior had one thing in common: they had been denied play in their childhood.

play is good for the soul

I have two sisters and there are only 31 months between me, the first born, and Laura, the last. We were raised in a herd. I have no memories when there weren’t three of us. And some of those memories include, shall we say, um, fighting. It all changed when Laura went through a growth spurt and outgrew Elizabeth and me. Suddenly hand-to-hand combat lost its appeal. What our parents didn’t know all those years ago is that we weren’t simply fighting, we were learning trust, empathy, irony, problem solving, and patterns for play that far outlasted the fights themselves.

I first heard the interview with Stuart Brown last summer and knew it was a game changer for me. In the summer I work with a  group of interns who spend two months playing with and investing in kids from lower income homes. Do they know they are doing far more than filling time? Do they know they are fostering trust and problem solving and maybe giving kids skills to keep them out of prison later in life.

My heart pounds a little faster at the thought. And then I think of us.

If you did a survey and asked people what are characteristics of folks in our line of work, what words would describe us? Hard working. Loyal. Dedicated. All honorable. But it’s not complete, is it? It makes me wonder what kind of gospel we are spreading.

I know we come from a myriad of cultures and histories, but when Krista asked Stuart what gets in the way of us playing as adults, he answered, “Our cultural heritage. Play is trivial, it’s what you do when your responsibilities are taken care of.” I have a feeling that strikes a chord with most of us.

As I re-listened to the interview and the importance of play not only in childhood, but adulthood too, it seemed almost tailor made for us. For instance:

1. “Play equips us to live well in the evolving nature of the world.” Hello visa regulations!

2. “Without play we are fixed and rigid in our responses to complex stimuli. We don’t have a repertoire of choices. We don’t seek out novelty and newness.”

3. “Our capacity to adapt is related to our capacity to play.”

4. “If adults don’t play, they have more rigidities, depression, lack of adaptability, and no irony. This hurts us as we need to cope with a lot of demands.”

5. “If we don’t play we are more savage.”

And then one that made me smile and birthed hope! Krista asked about adults for whom this is very hard for whatever reason, but in particular if abuse had been a part of their childhood and they didn’t have the chance to learn to play.

6. “It’s not like trying to learn a foreign language at age 60, play is embedded in us, it’s never too late.” Isn’t God spectacular? He has embedded play in us … for our good and enjoyment!

I don’t have time to go into it, but Stuart has specific ideas for parents of children ages 3 to 12 and how play is related to their innate talents. He also has suggestions of where to start for those of us who were denied play as childhood.

Great, now what?

1. If you haven’t, read Renee’s post.

2. Stuart said we need to “cultivate an appreciation for timelessness and purposelessness” every day. He said if he gets to dinner and hasn’t played at some point in his day, he’s cranky. Me too. Isn’t cultivate an inviting word?

3. Build play into your ministry. If you’re working with orphans, those who have been human trafficked, those in academia, or basically any walk of life, play is not trivial. Play is necessary to the Imago Dei in their souls. I will admit this one is still under construction in my own soul/thinking. The sense of what is purposeful runs deep in me. But I know it’s more about culture and less about God and so I’m leaning, leaning, leaning into this.

Please listen to the interview. It is one of the rare ones I think could change your life. You may be in a prison of your own making and maybe play is the key because Jesus came to set captives free. Amen and amen.


Did you grow up playing? What are the cultural messages about play in your home and host culture?  Who do you like to play with? Does this week touch something in you?

Photo credit Nabella Is via flickr


  1. Michele Womble June 25, 2015

    I just realized that what he said is exactly what I think:  “Play is trivial, it’s something you do when your responsibilities are taken care of…”  I didn’t think that I thought this way, but I do…wow.  We’ve made room for a day off each week, cultivating rest…but…I don’t “cultivate an appreciation for timelessness and purposelessness” every day.  And I don’t cultivate “play”.  (I read for rest.  Which is restful, and a form of play, but not play exactly.)

    don’t misunderstand, I do play games with my kids, because I know that’s important (I enjoy it, too) but I haven’t looked at play as something I need to cultivate for the adults as well…

    I’ll be doing some thinking on this.

  2. Elizabeth June 25, 2015

    I think for me, play is the thing I forget to do, but the thing that feels like a great big breath. I’m pretty good at taking care of my body with exercise, and good at taking care of my spirit with time alone with God, but I get stuck in my left brain too often. After all, I write and edit and teach home school — all quite left-brained activities. Sometimes I have to make myself do right brained activities like play the piano and draw (one badly and the other very badly). I consider those “play” because they are not “work.” 🙂 Too often I forget to do them but am so glad when I do. I’m a lover of board and card games too, though, and thankfully so are my kids! So we love to play games together.

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