In South Africa, it’s burn season at the moment and by that I don’t mean the natural veld fire kind. Rather it’s the time of year where about ten thousand people head for the Tankwa Karoo to the small cousin equivalent of the Burning Man event held annually in the USA. Last year was my first Afrikaburn and each day I dressed up in outlandish outfits and headed into the desert, free from daily responsibilities and typical adult stresses to explore the giant sandpit with a sense of wonder. I felt like a kid in a playground again. And around me were many other grown up children playing too. It made we ponder if we ever really grow up. Recent studies are surprisingly saying it’s best that we don’t.
It’s hard to define play but typically is has the qualities of being voluntary, pleasurable, non-repetitive, flavoured by culture and results in one losing a sense of time while engaging in it. It’s a state in which we are not self conscious and it creates a space where ideas are born.
World-renowned researcher, Stuart Brown calls play a “transformative force”. When we play, we open ourselves up to profound learning experiences.
Amazingly enough, it’s also a key factor in establishing what makes us feel safe with another human and contributes to connection. Brown says “the basis of human trust is established through play signals” and that bonding and the early roots of a community that is altruistic and cohesive develop through play.
“It is how we learn emotional regulation, physical capabilities, social norms, build imagination, learn about the world, improve memory and trigger feel good hormones that affect mood,” she says.
Einstein was quoted as saying “play is the highest form of research”.
In the wild you see this sense of play amongst the highly social animals too, like lions, elephants and wild dogs. Wild dogs are Africa’s most successful hunters as well as the most playful creatures right into old age. Typically they have a 70-80% success rate on hunts as opposed to the 20-30% that lions and leopards have. Could it be that these play and success are directly correlated? Curiosity and exploration are key components of play, qualities that, if practiced, would most certainly benefit hunters in a hunt. But it goes beyond this. As the dogs play you get the sense that they’re almost teasing one another, learning about individual personalities, strengths, weaknesses and establishing dominance structures. The amount that wild dogs play may well also have an impact on why they form such tightly-bonded groups due to the levels of trust and group cohesion it develops.
Many of us have bought into the lie that play equates to goofing around and that it’s something only children should engage in. But it seems we may even need it to survive.
One of the experiments that demonstrates this was one done with rats. In the experiment researchers allowed one group of rats to play, whilst they stopped the other group playing. Each group was then presented with a collar saturated in cat scent. Both groups reacted similarly and fled. What was interesting though was that the group that had been allowed to play slowly started to emerge and explore their environment again after some time, whilst the non-playing group never emerged and eventually died in their hiding spot. Although humans are thankfully not identical to rats, we do have the same neurotransmitters and a similar cortical architecture and it begins to give us a sense of the importance play has on our behaviour.
At the end of my two weeks in the desert at Afrikaburn I watched people begin to pack up their play and sense of connection and stuff them into suitcases alongside their dusty outfits, planning to only bring them out again another year from now. But it seems that it’s time we all get serious about play again. If it’s capable of turning wild dogs into Africa’s most successful hunters, maybe it can teach us all a trick or two. The worst thing that could happen is we end up having a little fun.