About Dr. Stuart Brown

A laughing, gray-haired man in a yellow sweater swinging on a treehouse rope swing.

Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of NIFP, has dedicated much of his career to the study of human play: what it is, how it affects our health, and the devastating consequences if it is suppressed. His early scholarly research on violence, thirty-five years of clinical practice, independent scholarship, and rich relations with play scholars have convinced him that we are “built to play and built by play.”

Realizing the Importance of Play

In the wake of the devastating Texas Tower mass murder–suicide in 1966, Dr. Brown — then a young assistant professor of psychiatry — became a member of the “Tower Commission.” The commission was tasked with investigating and understanding what was then the largest such mass murder in U.S. history. What could have motivated Charles Whitman, an otherwise charming, bright, 25-year-old student with no criminal history, to commit a devastating crime?

For four months, the multidisciplinary group examined every possible facet of Whitman’s life. As Commission members reconstructed his life, many factors were identified and weighed as potential contributors to his murderous behavior; throughout those discussions the eminent child psychiatrist Robert Stubblefield — a member of the commission — said again and again “if only he had played.” Ultimately the commission unanimously agreed that the cause of Whitman’s killing spree was that his free play had been systematically suppressed by a sadistic, overbearing father.

Cover of the book "A Sniper in the Tower"

Most people saw Whitman’s life circumstance as a tragic but unique aberration. Dr. Brown, however, was intrigued by the finding; he wanted to better understand the motivation for homicidal, violent antisocial behavior but scientific data on play deprivation was nonexistent. (There still is a lack today.)

Dr. Brown obtained a research grant to interview males incarcerated for homicide and compare them with matched control populations. Simultaneously, as part of his professorial duties, he was tasked with assembling the life histories of felony drivers who had died in car accidents in the local county. His research revealed that both the prisoner and driver groups had play histories that were markedly deficient in play compared to matched control groups.

The Tower Commission conclusions, combined with his findings from the subsequent research populations, solidified in Dr. Brown’s mind the linkages between major play deprivation and future propensity to violence or other serious life dysfunctions. He hypothesized that healthy play behavior is a means of preventing violent antisocial behavior and possibly a contributor to developing social-emotional competencies. The stage was set for Dr. Brown to investigate and understand play more deeply.

Multiyear Play Study

Inspired by longtime friend and fellow scientist Dr. Jane Goodall, who told him, “If you’re going to understand play, you have to understand play in animals in the wild,” Dr. Brown began a multiyear project for the National Geographic Society in 1991. He studied the work of animal play researchers and traveled the world to meet and learn from leading animal ethologists and other play scholars.

From Dr. Goodall’s beloved chimpanzees to bears in Alaska and even playful lab rats, Dr. Brown saw evidence that play is a highly evolved behavior in most mammals. He learned that the negative effects of lack of play had been identified by animal play scholars. In parallel, it became clear to him that play has positive effects for animals. A more comprehensive view of play was becoming established.

His cover article for National Geographic, “Animals at Play,” was published in December 1994 and touched off a flurry of public interest in the subject. The same year, he founded the non-profit that would become the National Institute for Play. The National Geographic article was followed by an Explorer TV program, a PBS miniseries, and eventually his 2009 book Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, now translated into 12 languages.

Today, play science is solidifying as an emerging discipline, attracting interest from researchers in many different fields. Jaak Panksepp, Sergio and Vivien Pellis, Jeffrey Burgdorf and other distinguished researchers are pioneers in establishing this new discipline. They confirm and extend the clinical findings from observers in the field.

Dr. Brown believes that neuroscience researchers will ultimately locate and define distinctive biomarkers that more completely profile play, similar to the biomarkers for sleep and dreams. The evidence is accumulating that play deprivation, like sleep deprivation, has profound negative consequences. As play science becomes more broadly recognized, it will help people understand their individual play natures — the situations or activities that give each person joy and the deep engagement Dr. Brown calls the “play state.”

A Mosaic of Play Stories

Over the course of his clinical career, Dr. Brown continued accumulating detailed developmental reviews that included reviews of play histories. He eventually completed more than 5,000 reviews with play histories of people from all walks of life, including many Nobel laureates. He found that a person’s play experiences have a profound influence on the shape and quality of their lives: Very accomplished people tend to have lives that allow and embrace play, and those with unhealthy, rigid, unproductive behaviors are often seriously play deprived

In the play histories he gathered, he saw that play behaviors are unique to the individual; we have innate preferences as to the types of play that naturally engage us. His extensive reviews led him to a non-scientific but commonsense model of eight play-based personalities that typify the majority of preferences that naturally engage people. The play personalities model has helped adults who have “lost” their play life to identify and rekindle it.

It is Dr. Brown’s observation that actualizing one’s deepest talents is associated with an engaged sense of play. Keeping play in one’s life is vital to a successful life journey. As such, it is important for parents and caretakers of very young children to recognize and nurture the preferences for varied environmental triggers that produce spontaneous glee in infants and children.

As the scientific facts about play become broadly recognized, Dr. Brown’s ultimate hope is that play will be seen as a fundamental public health necessity for our overall well-being.

Play Awareness Benefits Everyone

Dr. Brown sees play as a state of being rather than any single activity, something that people must experience and “live out.” The story of the polar bear and the sled dog is just one example of this — a moment when the instinct and signals for playfulness transcended hunger and the predatory instinct to fully engage the animals in a harmonized state of being — a play state. This deep sense of play underlies the consulting, teaching, and advocacy that characterizes Dr. Brown’s work to bring play into greater cultural consciousness.

He enjoyed ten years of co-teaching “From Play to Innovation” at the famed Stanford d.school, and has helped Fortune 100 companies expand their view of employee creativity and productivity. He has spoken at TED events, the London 2012 Olympics, the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the NY Academy of Sciences, and other prominent venues. And he has conducted research on the effectiveness of play-based learning for at-risk preschoolers with ADHD symptoms.

The major lesson from Dr. Brown’s lifetime odyssey of play is that everyone can access and benefit from identifying the activities that put them into an authentic play state and adding those activities to daily life.

His dream, and NIFP’s mission, is to individually and collectively make play as important in the public consciousness as good sleep, balanced nutrition and personal hygiene. Just as we have to feed our bodies to thrive and wash our hands to get rid of germs, we have to play to build our ability to flourish in society and live our fullest life. Humans are uniquely designed by nature to enjoy and benefit from play throughout our lives.

Through the National Institute for Play, Dr. Brown continues to support, expand, and share the scientific study of play and its benefits, and encourage everyone to take time to PLAY.