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Essay: The Importance of Play

Dr. Stuart Brown is the founder of the National Institute for Play and the author of a book about the role of play in a child's early development.

Dr. Stuart BrownI viewed Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go through the lens of the primal importance of play in early childhood as it contributes to the development of emotional regulation, cognitive growth, sustained social skills and physical confidence.

The vivid demonstrations of the kids' internalization of self-hatred, their social confusion and the imprint of past abuse on all of those featured showed that, at the early stages of their residence, it was impossible for them to access their intrinsic play capacities. As their lives unfolded, normal play was still very difficult for them, but it was also beautifully depicted, as reflected in the joy of Michael's deep attachments to the staff and fellow residents and in Robert's exultation as he received his reward for "no weeing."

Robert gets a stereo

Robert's joy after he received a radio for not peeing on the floor. Courtesy of Women Make Movies

The impulsive, emotionally charged acting out engaged in by the children throughout the film vividly illustrates a lack of ability to experience the many states of play. Most kids experience these play states (rough and tumble play, simple games, toys, fantasies) early and repeatedly, and those play states allow them a huge range of possibilities for adjusting to the demands of a changing world. Safety from birth onward in surroundings provided by stable, caring parents allows play to emerge as the primary modus operandi of their lives.

The absence of this kind of safety, combined with the existence of abuse, produces emotional chaos, intense protest, impounded rage and deep mistrust. So the staff's stability and impressive patience allow slow, safe grounding to take place. The consistency with which staff members interrupt acting out behavior through physical holding combined with verbal explanations allows the early vestiges of play to emerge very slowly. In Michael's trajectory, for example, I saw early moments of stability and genuinely felt pleasure through music-playing. Toward the end of his stay, he was able to pretend role-play. These types of pretend-real fantasies normally dominate the private internal narratives of three and four year olds and allow some sense of personal control and safety as a safe and protected childhood unfolds. Michael's imaginative play represents a huge step that is directly related to his personal regulation of what were previously uncontrollable emotionally volcanic eruptions.

I have deep respect for the selfless devotion of the staff, whose verbal explanations in response to angry, provocative, insulting and physically out-of-control behavior may be ahead of the cognitive capacities of the kids involved. Verbal and cognitive explanations rarely change behavior. It is the experience of safety and the direct feeling of joyful, active use of oneself through play that heals the damaged soul, allow imagination to reign and open a window to hope and optimism.

This is an impressive, emotionally penetrating film that shows the consequences of early abuse, as well as the joyful impact of daily love and professionalism given in the service of others.

Trained in general and internal medicine, psychiatry and clinical research, and an avid player himself, Stuart L. Brown, M.D. first recognized the essential contributions of play to human physical, emotional and cognitive development by systematically discovering what its absence meant in the life stories of murderers and felony drunken drivers. His years of clinical practice affirmed the importance of its continued presence as it positively contributes its benefits throughout the human life cycle. Desiring to bring this new “science of play” into practical realms, he founded the National Institute for Play. It is devoted to bringing the transformative “states” of play into sports, education, personal relationships and public policy. Dr. Brown has authored the recently released Avery/Penguin book, PLAY, How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul.





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This is an impressive, emotionally penetrating film that shows the consequences of early abuse, as well as the joyful impact of daily love and professionalism given in the service of others.”

— Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of the Institute for Play

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