DISCIPLINES: Team Learning, Mental Models, Personal Mastery, Systems Thinking

The truly great advances of this generation will be made by those who can make outrageous connections, and only a mind which knows how to play can do that.
—Nagle Jackson


Play is really important. Many of us who are silly at heart have known this all along, but it’s satisfying to have it verified by people who study things like survival and the advancement of civilizations. Stuart Brown, M.D., founder of The National Institute for Play ( tells a story in his 2009 book, Play, How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, about a hungry young polar bear who approached Hudson, a sled dog. Warm weather had prevented ice from forming, so the polar bears had been unable to hunt and eat seals. Musher Brian La Doone and his party watched the approach with dread, knowing the rambunctious Hudson was no match for the polar bear. However, the unexpected happened. As it the bear closed in, Hudson did not bark or flee. Instead, he wagged his tail and bowed, a classic play signal.The polar bear responded and together dog and bear wrestled and played rough and tumble in the snow for 15 minutes. They played so energetically that at one point the bear had to lie down, belly up: a universal sign in the animal kingdom for a time-out. More astonishing still, the polar bear reappeared every day for 5 days around the same time for a romp with the dog. By that time the ice had frozen and the polar bear could eat. Brown concluded that sometimes play is more important than food.

Brown defines play as a state of mind rather than an activity. Play, he says, is “an absorbing, apparently purposeless activity that provides enjoyment and a suspension of self-consciousness and sense of time. It is self-motivating and make you want to do it again.” So writing Musings is play to me but some people experience such writing as work. We must each identify for ourselves what is “play” for us. And it is important that we do. When we have played, our brains work better and we are more optimistic and creative.

In the development of young children and animals, play is essential for learning who to befriend or avoid, and how to recognize social cues. When we observe young children playing or watch an Animal Planet video, we often smile and re-experience the delicious feeling of play.

Interestingly Dr. Brown, a retired psychiatrist, first focused on play in 1966, after noting the absence of play in a mass murderer, Charles Whitman, whom he’d been asked by the governor of Texas to study. Whitman had continually had his natural tendency to play suppressed by an oppressive and abusive father. This alerted Brown to the possibility that play might be very important. He went on to study many mass murderers, and repeatedly found abnormal or absent play histories in this group. This led eventually to his founding of the National Institute for Play, which takes very seriously the goal of understanding the role of play in our individual and collective lives.

I am lucky to have a family that really knows how to play. I have just come from a week together, where we played trampoline dodgeball, ultimate Frisbee, bocci ball, homemade Pictionary (Easkesionary), and self-organizing jam sessions with singing and many instruments (in addition to piano, guitar and drum, we had triangle, sheep’s toenail shaker, thumb cymbals and others.) My 10-year-old granddaughter, Ruthie, shared her silver glitter fingernail polish with everyone, including the boys and men. We sat around talking, reading, napping, telling stories and laughing, in naturally forming groups. It was a time of great renewal and refreshment for me.

Dr. Brown says “I don’t think it is too much to say that play can save your life. Life without play is a grinding, mechanical existence organized around doing the things necessary for survival. Play is the basis of all art, games, books, sports, movies, fashion, fun and wonder – in short, the basis of what we think of as civilization. Play is the vital essence of life. It is what makes life lively.”


  1. How can you design more play into your life in 2010?

  2. How can you be more playful generally?

  3. How can you play more with others?

  4. What might a playful attitude free you from?

  5. What might a playful attitude liberate in you?


Please join me for a 45-minute telegathering to explore play more deeply Call Tuesday, January 26 at noon Eastern (11:00 a.m. Central, 10:00 a.m. MT, 9:00 a.m. Pacific) 1-218-862-1300 PIN 276583. No need to register…just call at that time!

Read an excerpt from Liberating Greatness, the Whole Brain Guide to an Extraordinary Life, the book Hal and I wrote, at

Sharon Eakes | 720 Maple Lane | Sewickley, PA 15143

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