The Scary Reason That Play Time Is Essential

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Parten's stages of play theory

Please be advised that the following article mentions a case of gun violence.

Today’s Thought for Thursday deals with the important business of play. We know that it helps children learn. We know that it’s good for parents to get a few minutes peace!  But are there other benefits? How about stopping kids from developing into violent, antisocial killers?

At least that’s according to a study by Psychiatrist Stuart Brown in the 1960s. Brown interviewed and studied 26 murderers and identified common factors.

Charles Whitman was one of those studied. In 1966, after killing his mother and his wife, mechanical engineering student Whitman went to the University of Texas.  He climbed an observation tower and started shooting. In all, he killed 16 people and wounded 32. It was the worst mass murdering spree in the US up to that point.

Dr. Brown was looking for evidence of physical abuse in the childhood of these men, evidence that he found. What surprised him, however, was that most of the murderers had been denied the opportunity to play during childhood. Later, a state committee investigating what caused Charles Whitman to kill so many innocent people determined that this denial of playtime strongly contributed to his crimes.

“The committee investigating Charles Whitman’s life and motives unanimously identified his lifelong lack of play as a key factor in his homicidal actions.”

– Dr. Stuart Brown

Yikes! Subsequently, Dr. Brown studied over six thousand people. His findings were always consistent. If you delve into the childhood of antisocial and violent men, you are most likely going to find abnormal or denied play behaviour. In 2007 Dr. Brown founded the Institute of Play to promote game design to help children learn through play.

Play allows children to explore and understand the world and their peers. It teaches us self-control and how to see things from another’s perspective. It teaches us how to collaborate to solve problems.

A study published yesterday by the Michigan State University warns that children who are not allowed to be kids make for worse parents. The researchers studied 374 mothers that had been interviewed about their own childhood. These women’s parenting skills were then observed several times over 18 months. Some of these mothers had extra caregiving responsibilities as children, either as carers for younger siblings or others. This extra responsibility meant that they had to grow up earlier than the others in the study.

The researchers found that women who were given too much responsibility as children were in turn “less likely to respond warmly and positively to their infant’s needs and interests and to put their child’s need for exploration and independence over their own agenda.”

So, providing a carefree, play-filled childhood is the ideal way to raise a child. Of course, an ideal childhood is not always possible and we shouldn’t seek to demonize people. Not everyone who didn’t get to play turns into a murderer or a bad parent. We are influenced by our childhoods, not determined by them. It should be noted that Charles Whitman also had a brain tumour that could equally have contributed to his murder spree. It should also be noted that people who develop brain tumours rarely become violent!

But if you have kids, make time for them to play. Ease their responsibilities for a while. Allow them to explore, to make friends, to make-believe.  You can let them at it or even join in! It’s good for you too.

Do you have any thoughts on this article? Please feel free to share them below.


  • National Institute of Play Website
  • Psychology Today – Play Must Be Taken Seriously
  • Michigan State University – kids allowed to be kids make better parents

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