The benefits of play are immense across all ages, research shows

In 1966, when psychiatrist Dr. Stuart Brown was assigned to a commission to investigate what led University of Texas student Charles Whitman to kill 12 people in one of the country’s first mass shootings, Brown and his colleagues considered many different aspects of Whitman’s background. The student had access to firearms at home; he had witnessed abuse while growing up; and he had a difficult relationship with his father.

But Brown was struck by one other factor that came up in the commission’s discussions: Whitman had experienced play deprivation, or an “almost complete suppression of normal play behavior,” as the commission put it, while growing up.

That finding motivated Brown to ask more questions about play and its role in healthy human development. In the years after the shooting, he and a team of researchers interviewed men who were incarcerated in the Texas Huntsville Prison for homicide. When the researchers compared information about the inmates’ childhoods with a population outside the prison, they found that the comparison group could provide abundant examples of free play in childhood, while the group inside prison largely could not. “The parallelism between their play deficiencies, and the objective problems in forming trusting social bonds with others seems very significant,” concluded Brown in a 2018 article.

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