I recently bought a new toy for my cat, Rashi. This string on a stick was an instant success as evidenced by his pouncing from under chairs and running after me. After 15 minutes of following the string at break-neck speeds, Rashi was left panting but meowing for more. While he had plenty of opportunities to play alone with the toy mice that litter my living room, he was missing social play with me. He now follows me daily, meowing and getting more excited when I walk to where the toy is stored. Since we have begun to play together, Rashi now sleeps next to me at night. Social play is turning on neural circuitry that is causing him to bond to me.
Neoteny is the retention of juvenile attributes into adulthood. While frequently associated with physical features, humans are one of the few species that retain personality attributes of our childhood as well. Characteristics such as playfulness, curiosity, displays of affection and social behavior. But somewhere in the establishment of our cultural system, we have learned to depress our neotenous characteristics as we age for behaviors that we identify as mature.
(Ironically, at the same time we've stifled the behaviors that typify youth, we've waged an outright war on getting older. Last year we spent over $88 billion on anti-aging treatments for our face and bodies; a number that doesn't include gym memberships, diets and fountain-of-youth vitamin blends.)
When is the last time you walked into a room and felt compelled to try every chair -- jumping up and down and moving back and forth on each seat -- not only to help you choose the most comfortable but also just to know what each chair felt like? My 7-year-old nephew did this the first time he visited me. This is how he made his choice of where to sit.
Neuroscience underscores what every good parent knows intuitively: play is key to healthy intellectual, emotional and social development -- as important as sleep, rest and food in developing "imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive and emotional strength." Our curiosity and fearlessness help us learn about the world and each other. But as we age, we push playfulness aside. Instead we enter a room full of chairs and choose one based on an assumption about the way the chair looks. And even if the chair turns out to be really uncomfortable most of us A) remain seated or B) discreetly move to another -- maybe even apologizing to others for not being certain the first time.
In 1938, Dutch cultural theorist Johan Huizinga postulated that man was play and that all culture evolved from acts of play- not just in the Greek Olympic sense but right down to our political and social structures: art, law, religion, and even war. Arguing in evolutionary terms that play in animals predates human culture, Huizinga states that the very cultural systems we now take for granted are a result of activities happening in play states evolving from the same behaviors seen in non-human animals. Huizinga observes that play is distinct in that it occurs outside of our ordinary, life-sustaining activities -- eating, sleeping and reproducing -- forming what we understand as culture in human groups.
So what is play? Founded by Dr. Stewart Brown in an effort to streamline and coordinate the scientific research on play, the National Institute for Play has identified seven patterns of play and the cause and effect on human development: (1) Attunement Play; (2) Body Play and Movement; (3) Object Play; (4) Social Play; (5) Imaginative and Pretend Play; (6) Storytelling-Narrative Play; and (8) Transformative-Integrative and Creative play -- each contributing to our understanding of play as a natural phenomenon.
If nothing more, we know that play is fun and that fun feels good. We are driven to play even if we can't articulate why we flirt with our favorite waitress or why images of South African airline kulula's "Flying 101" Boeings (see images included) circled the web more times than the plane itself may ever circle the earth. Playing is a way of experiencing our world, a way of bringing joy to the mundane. And fundamentally: Play is a way of learning. When we are in the play state we are in a personal flow state where we can experiment, fail and grow. There is a biological reason we don't lose our neotenous playful characteristics as we age but we need to embrace these traits instead of shunning them. As play scholar Brian Sutton-Smith notes: "The opposite of play is not work, it is depression."