The Science of Play

Morzine Luge

­By Claire Garber                                                                

Slackers. That’s what I called them. Those lazy folk, who never seemed to work, always seemed to be on some wanderlust adventure and were too happy for their own good on their Instagram feed. ‘One day they’ll have to grow up’ I chirped to myself as I sat down to plan out a 60-hour working week, high-fiving myself at my own industriousness.

But now it appears that the slackers had it right all along. Not only should we be working much less than we do, we should also be playing much more. For our health, our happiness, our relationships and for our career goals – daily play time has become priority number one. Which means that those cool cats who put wakeboarding, all day hikes, yoga retreats and even lakeside BBQs before working were light years ahead of me. So often I’d disparaged these lazy play hounds, but could the reason I hadn’t achieved certain career goals actually be because I wasn’t more like them? Was it that I hadn’t played hard enough, rather than not having worked? I, and my 60-hour working week planner, needed to know more.

Mountain biking in Mozine

Morzine is a giant playground all summer. Photo: Damian McArthur

What is play?

According to Dr Stuart Brown, the foremost scientist and play researcher, there are seven properties that accurately describe play. Play must be purposeless. Voluntary. There must be an inherent attraction to it (who isn’t attracted to thigh deep powder days?). While doing it, you should lose track of time. It diminishes the conscious self (no one cares what they look like after a face shot). Play has improvisational potential (like the games you make up when somersaulting into a lake, or the new tricks you try in the snow park); and finally, play has a ‘continuation desire’ which makes you want to do it more. Dr Stuart Brown’s definition is internationally accepted and makes the French Alps look like the birthplace of Original Fun.

Play for your brain

Play has psychological and physical benefits. Play literally lights up the brain, the frontal lobe coming alive with impulses. Play has been shown to release endorphins, improve brain functionality, and stimulate creativity. Studies have shown that it improves memory and stimulates the growth of the cerebral cortex. It has also been shown to trigger the secretion of BDNF, a substance essential for the growth of brain cells. It improves cognitive functioning, helps you deal with stress with greater ease and can even help keep you young and feeling energetic.

It’s not just about the humans

We’ve all seen dogs play, cats chase string, elephants spray each other with water, or dolphins playing in the waves. No one taught these species to play or made them listen to a TED talk about why it might be beneficial to their health. It is as deep rooted in their genetic make-up as their ability to hunt, swim, climb and reproduce. Play also transcends species. There is incredible footage shot in Northern Canada of a polar bear and a husky playing together. The group of huskies had been tethered together by Norbert Rosing who was hoping to photograph them at sunset. From nowhere a 1200lb female polar bear approached, hungry after months of winter starvation.  Terrified onlookers prepared themselves for a bloody fight to the death. But as the female polar bear approached, one husky crouched to a bow and started wagging her tail. The polar bear recognised the play signal and, in spite of hunger, decided to respond. What followed was a filmed incident of these two creatures play-fighting, showing how play has a universality about it that is almost difficult to comprehend. How do they all know about play?

Avoriaz Burton Stash Park

The PDS is your playground come winter! Photo: Sam Ingles

Play for your life

The opposite of play is not work. Dr Stuart Brown says ‘The opposite of play, is depression’.  When laboratory animals have been restricted from playing the result has often been fatal. A group of laboratory rats were restricted from playing with each other and a second group left to do so. The two groups were then presented with a cat-saturated collar, which provoked their natural fight or flight response. Both groups hid, as they should, from the potential threat, the group of rats who’d been allowed to play eventually venturing back out. But the play-deprived group never did so. They stayed hidden until eventually the entire group died from starvation.

Play more, work less

It’s not just that you need to play more. You also need to work less. There is an emerging field of thought that believes that working for more than four hours a day is entirely and totally pointless. This ‘emerging field of thought’ isn’t debt laden university geography students. It’s actual scientists, studying other, accomplished scientists. They found that they were no more productive if they spent nine hours in the laboratory than if they had been there for only four. The likes of Darwin, G.H.Hardy and Charles Dickens all subscribed to this work ethic. As did authors Alice Munro, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Anthony Trollope, scientist John Lubbock, director Ingmar Bergman and mathematician Henri Poincare. They didn’t get within spitting distance of a nine hour day and were all done and dusted by lunchtime,  spending afternoons on hikes, swims, tending to their gardens or just napping.

Many dot com companies have of course long since realised this. Apple has Blue Sky, which allows workers to spend work time on pet projects (aka, Play). Microsoft created The Garage, a space for employees to build their own products (aka, Play). Richard Branson announced unlimited holiday for his staff at Virgin saying “smart” not “hard” is the new way to work, before flying off to one of his many islands.

So it seems that in the world of work, play is king, success is down to doing less and that play needs to be at the top of our daily To Do list. We must work less. We must play more. And if we don’t it will be to the detriment of our health, happiness and probably our wealth. We must give ourselves permission to play every day.

Canyoning in Morzine

Even in the interseason, you can still play in Morzine. Photo: Valérie Poret

Your Play Project

  1. Write down a list of 3 things / activities that you could do for hours on end. If you are not sure what constitutes play, go back and look at Dr Stuart Brown’s seven-point definition of play. If you are still not sure, think back to what you liked doing when you were a kid. But before you reach for your remote control, watching TV and films doesn’t count, as both are passive activities and often a form of numbing and avoidance. Play requires us to be actively engaged. So get a book or better still, get off the sofa and out the house.


  1. Carve out time in your calendar to play. Even when you are at your busiest, protect play time as you would protect work conferences, PTA meetings and hospital appointments.


  1. Make time for daily play. Play is not an annual holiday or a bi monthly event. It should be the first thing you pencil in to you day planner, every single day.


Extra Credit

Why not make play lists with family members, loved ones and friends? Are your ideas of play the same or different? Are you schalpping yourselves round art galleries at the weekend when you’d all rather be BBQing up at the lake? Dr. Brene Brown PhD, TED speaker and researcher, found that the activities her family traditionally participated in on holidays were not the things that ended up on each of their play lists. This became transformative when planning family holidays.


Claire Garber is a Morzine-based author, ski instructor, freelance writer and all-round lovely person. She is also Communications Editor at The Boutique Chalet Company.



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