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Want Well-Adjusted Kids? Let Them Play
March 17, 2023
“Children need the freedom and time to play. Play is not a luxury. Play is a necessity.”
-Kay Redfield Jamison

“In 1966, when psychiatrist Dr. Stuart Brown was assigned to a commission to investigate what led University of Texas student Charles Whitman to kill 12 people in one of the country’s first mass shootings, Brown and his colleagues considered many different aspects of Whitman’s background. The student had access to firearms at home; he had witnessed abuse while growing up; and he had a difficult relationship with his father.

But Brown was struck by one other factor that came up in the commission’s discussions: Whitman had experienced play deprivation, or an ‘almost complete suppression of normal play behavior,’ as the commission put it, while growing up.”

So begins an article in the Hechinger Report by Jackie Mader.

She goes on to explain, “In the years after the shooting, he and a team of researchers interviewed men who were incarcerated in the Texas Huntsville Prison for homicide. When the researchers compared information about the inmates’ childhoods with a population outside the prison, they found that the comparison group could provide abundant examples of free play in childhood, while the group inside prison largely could not. ‘The parallelism between their play deficiencies, and the objective problems in forming trusting social bonds with others seems very significant.’”

Brown, the founder and past president of the National Institute for Play, cautions against drawing conclusions about outcomes for children who experience a lack of play, but offers that numerous studies since the Texas tragedy all point to the fact that humans “have an innate need to engage in playful activities as a part of healthy development.”



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Comments (3)

Displaying All 3 Comments
Cheri Szereszewski · April 03, 2023
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

I fell that a dysfunctional childhood, poor relationship with parents (poor attachment) and access to guns is a better marker to predicting the type of crime the investigation was looking at. Not have "normal play" as children would have been a natural outcome of the early childhood experiences noted above. As a colleague I was discussing this with noted "I would say the guns, abuse etc played a huge part and then the lack of play sent these folks over the top. I think it could have happened if they had also had play and the play was pure violence with no positive guidance." I don't think that Not having normal play experiences alone is the mitigating factor in creating murderers.

Kirsten Haugen · March 21, 2023
Eugene, OR, United States

Thanks for your comment, Alisha. In addition to those factors, I was struck by Dr Brown's focus on the common experience of play deprivation among people who later became violent. If more free play yields better mental well-being and stability, all of us who work with children can be even more motivated and empowered to let children simply play, even if we can't directly influence what happens in the home.

Alisha Miller · March 20, 2023
osceola, Arkansas, United States

I think how your raised can play a lot into your future. Having fire arms at home dose not make you more prone to be a killer, in my opion. Having devoted loving family around you can help. but to me it all goes' to how you are raised by your family and what you are taught at home.

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