Playful activities bring us great joy, with rough-and-tumble play being seen as the most fun of all. The play system is vital because it provides opportunities to learn and develop vital skills for survival when the world is safe, and for practicing with abundant variations and flexibility.

All mammalian youngsters discover within their minds “a wild, naughty, rambunctious creature”… spontaneous and mischievous. (Panksepp & Biven, 2012)

Imagine of a group of young mammals - kittens, children, fox cubs, tiger cubs, puppies – in your imagination, what are they doing? The likelihood is, they are playing, possibly exploring, probably exploring playfully! At the time when we have the most learning to do – when we are a beginner – PLAY systems are activated as soon as FEAR is not present. The yearning for and activation of PLAY can override hunger, thirst, pain and the need for CARE.

Active PLAY systems do something very special to an important part of our brain used for learning and remembering – our hippocampus. Active PLAY systems generate new neurons in this area of the brain – by having fun when we learn we build our brains literally!

Evolution has paired learning with fun for the very reason that we are more likely to do it. Just as sexual intercourse is paired with pleasure, if we are lucky, we keep the pairing of learning and fun for a lifetime.

Whilst play is easiest to witness in our young, for those who allow their natural urges to remain, PLAY systems can be present and active right till the very end of our life, helping us learn until we can learn no longer. Bernie DeKoven shared a poignant video just a few months before he died, when he clarifies that PLAY isn’t something that some people turn on purposely, it is something people turn off. Of course, it can get blocked by life, but this idea that people are essentially PLAYful fits with our genetic heritage. We never stop needing to learn so we always need to PLAY.

“People who are beyond healing are most definitely not beyond fun, or a good laugh with someone they love. I don't know if games can help people face death. But they can definitely help them affirm life. And perhaps that is the best we can do for them.

I can tell you this about me. I think, if I were dying, and still had the energy, I'd prefer the life-celebrating silliness of it all”. Bernie DeKoven

Activation and Expression

An activated PLAY system in children will be expressed in a huge variety of ways, corresponding to the vast amount of skills that our young need to learn and develop to survive in the world. Urges from the PLAY system cause the rough-and-tumble play involving tickling, pouncing, mock attacks, pins, wrestling, playful chasing, blocking, giggling, laughing as well as clear feedback about any accidental pain caused and responding appropriately to this. Of course, children play in a variety of other ways but this one is highly innate and very healthy, as well as sometimes discouraged by parents who don’t understand its rich importance. Touch is a sensory system that can get and keep play going, and so tickling is often the easiest way when we have appropriately boundaries in relationships.

Being unclear about the limits of play is a surefire way to stop play. If we don’t know the rules of the situation or the game – we are less likely to experience it as playful. Equally, when boundaries are crossed, rules are broken, our emotional experience shifts from playful, hopefully to assertive boundary setting, sometimes to aggrieved or angry. Once we know what the boundaries and limitations are, and we and others involved work within the rules and scope of the game – a confusing muddle turns into an opportunity for exploration, with both clarity and some uncertainty regarding expectations of the outcome.

Blocked expression

The play urge is strong when the world is safe but it is easily blocked by danger. Blocking the PLAY system can lead to frustration, even fury, as expressed by young children when they just want to be left in peace to play.

Repetitive blocking of the PLAY system can lead to a reduction in learning and development in children, reducing creativity and flexibility.

“When children experience deficits in their ability to play, they often appear depressed and envious of other children. … Play deprivation may lead to frustrated adults with low mood… even reclusive adults who could be a menace to society”. (Panksepp & Biven, 2012)

We try to bring playfulness into our courses, coaching and therapeutic work. We honour the serious business of play - because the serious business of learning is simply more effective when play is involved. However, with activated fear systems, play can feel challenging and even dangerous, so our courses and emphasis on tackling anxiety first is often the key to releasing blocked play systems.