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.