Stuart Brown’s (2009) Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens Imagination & Invigorates the Soul

Dr Stuart BrownDr Stuart Brown, from Stanford University

I just read a Straits Times article entitled Kids at play learn to give and take dated June 7, 2015, and discovered an area of research known as Play Science.

Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play in California, and author of Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul, contended that play deprivation is pernicious to socio-emotional and affective development, and argues that play the deprived

“… are not as curious, they lack resilience. They have difficulty regulating appropriate emotions,” he says. “People who are play deprived also tend to be inflexible, especially when something surprising happens. Novelty is unpleasant when you are unprepared for it or when you are missing the spontaneity that helps you enjoy or learn from surprises. They tend to be rigid and easily startled and will react with hostility or withdrawal rather than joy.”

Is OSS novel and thus unpleasant to unprepared play deprived users, who view OSS as merely “work that we have to do” (in the words of Jin Long), and do OSS fans such as Prakash consider the same “work” as play?

“Many activities qualify as play. As long it’s voluntary, done for its own sake and gives pleasure. Often, it engages a person deeply and the engagement itself is more important than the outcome. So one has a sense of being lost outside of time,” he says.

I see this play occurring frequently on social media platforms. Users can get lost for hours on Facebook, fully cognizant that there is very little relevance or benefit to their “work”.

In fact, many users can become so engrossed in their own online identities, that they appear narcissistic even, deriving great pleasure when others “like” their posts.

Brown adds: “It must be an activity that can be interrupted; it’s not driven; it’s not compulsive and it is not done to please others but to please yourself.”

Would a feature similar to the “like” button make OSS more “play-able”? Would it serve any purpose, other than to please the user?

Of sport as play, Brown claims:

If it’s all about kicking the ball into the goal, rather than kicking the ball because it feels good, it becomes less play and more performance and anxiety producing.

This reminds me of Jude Chua’s (2009) and Nobel laureate James March’s (1971, 2006) call for a “technology of foolishness” rather than “technology of reason” to mitigate high stakes performative pressures that focus on goals and returns on investment that are inimical to design thinking and the exploratory processes of creative expression. They argue that performance anxiety and obsession with the ends or goals, displace the enjoyment and wonder that make the exploratory process so much more important than the final product/outcome so prized by assessors.

Does OSS in its current iteration facilitate the kind of play that Brown advocates, so that ideas can be tested and toyed around with as learners become lost in dialogic, exploratory, relexive processes amongst peers and tutors, who avoid or at least delay judgement (read assessment)? Facilitating play through the virtual studio and third space, could be a key component of my study.


Brown, S. L., & Vaughan, C. C. (2009). Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. New York: Avery.

Chua, S. M. J. (2009). Saving the teacher’s soul: exorcising the terrors of performativity. London Review of Education, 7(2), 159-167. doi: 10.1080/14748460902990344

James G. March, “The Technology of Foolishness”, Civiløkonomen (Copenhagen), 18 (1971) 4, 4-12.

James G. March, “Rationality, Foolishness, and Adaptive Intelligence”, Strategic Management Journal, 27 (2006) 201-214.

Published by


Technology-mediated learning environments student here. Am interested in how cutting edge educational technologies such as OSS, are harnessed to facilitate the teaching and learning of visual art.

4 thoughts on “Stuart Brown’s (2009) Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens Imagination & Invigorates the Soul”

  1. Reading your post is like learning new stuff in an interesting way. Like I never knew there is an institution for play in the world, there must be lots of fun there.
    Though I don’t know if I am the play deprived type, the description fits me well. But I was not that resistant to accept OSS, maybe because it was not compulsory for me to choose it; I chose it by myself.

    1. And reading your reply encourages me to share more of what I’ve learnt and think.

      I think if we have made it to NTU on our own merit, we certainly had to be play deprived at some point of our lives. I recall numerous times that I had to forgo play in order to cram for examinations. As Asian students, we are always exhorted to delay short term gratification for long term gain. Interestingly, the marshmallow experiment was performed in America, but our Tigers Mums knew it all along. Kekekeee.

      For Cynthia, you and I, our supervisor does’t assess us based on our OSS activities, so I suppose it leaves more room for us to play, explore, have fun. Performative pressures on us are not centred on OSS, unlike the ADM undergraduates who may feel the need to impress their tutors on OSS.

      If OSS users genuinely post in OSS for the love of learning and exploration, they would continue playing in OSS, even after the end of the module, like they do on Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.

      It is difficult to compel learners to play (yes, I’m afraid we have to impel studious children to play in Singapore), when high stakes examinations and the accountability or audit regime become prohibitive great, and penalizes disorderly processes of play and creative representation and expression.

      That’s why I think the only time the ADM students really played, was in the performance We Are Now(here), as it was not assessed or graded. They were smiling and relishing every moment. If only that authenticity and verve and gumption could be replicated in their WordPress posts and Adobe Connect tutorials.

      You can view the ground-breaking cyber-performance at

  2. The role of play is certainly something I strive for in my teaching, and it “plays out” because of the kinds of creative assignments I give. OSS is a system for learning and documentation but it requires that both students and faculty inject it with the spirit of play. So the question becomes: what are some strategies we can think of to encourage a social play, invention, creation?

    1. As a student, my knee jerk response to fostering social play, invention and creation, is to get more playful faculty (read Caucasian), and ditch examinations, but as an educator, whose bread and butter entails preparing learners for examinations and administering them, I’m cognizant of how “messy” alternative assessments can be.

      Nevertheless, the right kind of assessment can give that needed eustress or good stress (rather than distress) to push learners to their limits, and stretch their imagination and abilities.

      I recall how my examination for Voice and Production Studies revolved around physical activities like holding our legs up in the air for as long we could to build and test core abdominal strength, and playing crazy warm up games involving tag and improvising them to come up with new games to facilitate breathing and vocal projection. A personal journal much like WordPress, documented our learning experiences, thinking and concerns. It was the first time in my life that I was genuinely eager to sit for the examination, as it was fun. I laughed so hard, my ribs hurt.

      The outcome: Candidates collaborated to invent new games and created new knowledge together, and cried because we couldn’t stop chuckling at one another’s zany inventions.

      Such madness was possible because we had a British tutor, Ms Claire Devine, who incidentally disregarded NTU’s practice of grading to the curve, and convinced the administration that so many of her students deserved the As that she awarded them.

      Cognitive Modelling
      I argue that her out of the box assessment modes, compelled us to re-examine traditional ways of demonstrating learning, and that only a playful tutor who made the effort to constantly play along with her undergraduates, could light that playful spark in her learners. Ms Devine did what she expected us to do, via direct modelling. During social play, she used indirect modelling, symbolic modelling, synthesized modelling. Vicarious learning occurred when learners observed the actions of other players, and the effects were amplified, when we observed the consequences of those playful actions, and adjusted our own actions accordingly.

      Vicarious Learning & Changing Inhibitions
      Vicarious reinforcement and punishment through the successes and setbacks of other players, changed inhibitions, which were self-imposed on one’s own behaviour, but were subsequently strengthened and weakened during different stages of play.

      Arousing Emotions
      The emotional arousal effect of cognitive modelling was a strong endorsement for teacher enthusiasm. Observing how Ms Devine and other undergraduates genuinely enjoying themselves as they engage one another in “serious play”, generated similar excitement in me. Modelling thus resulted in behavioural, cognitive and affective outcomes. Behavioural outcomes occurred when behaviours were learned and facilitated; cognitive outcomes resulted from observing the consequences of other players’ actions, and affective outcomes were the result of modelling emotions.

      OSS & Play
      In sum, evidence of cognitive modelling, vicarious learning, change in inhibitions, and emotional arousal, may provide empirical data of teaching that “plays out” during creative assessments.

Leave a Reply