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Above: Dr Stuart Brown, speaking in a TED talk about the importance of play.

“Brian Sutton-Smith [pioneering play theorist] said the opposite of play is not work, it’s depression”

By Keryn Curtis

The idea of play being integral to human development has been around a while in the study of childhood development but the idea that play is essential to the brain function and well-being of humans throughout life is a newer frontier in scientific research.

Former physician, psychiatrist and clinical researcher, Dr Stuart Brown, the founder and president of the National Institute for Play in the US, has been investigating the relationship between various forms of play and brain function for more than 30 years.

He will be visiting Australia early next month as the international keynote speaker at the inaugural National Play Up Convention, fittingly being held at Sydney’s Luna Park on 5-6 September.

Dr Brown says play shapes our brains and is strongly associated with creating competancies like problem solving, intellectual curiosity, social ability and emotional regulation and helps with contextual memory.   It has an important biological place for humans, just as sleep and dreaming do, and play deprivation affects healthy brain function, he says.

“Humans are uniquely designed by nature to enjoy and participate in play throughout life,” Dr Brown says in a TED talk delivered in California in 2008.

“If you have play deprivation you don’t develop a normal brain. Brian Sutton-Smith [pioneering play theorist] said the opposite of play is not work, it’s depression.  If you think about life without play – no movies, no flirtation, stories, games, imagination, fantasy – try to imagine life without play.

“The word ‘neoteny’ refers to the retention of immature qualities into adulthood and we are the most neotenous, youthful and plastic of all creatures and this gives us a leg-up on adaptability.  It is unique to our species, that we are designed to play right through our lifetime,” he says.

Dementia and play

In Australia, dementia researcher, Dr Lee-Fay Low from the Dementia Collaborative Research Centre (DCRC) at UNSW, says there is a growing body of evidence demonstrating the value of play in managing dementia.

Dr Lee-Fay Low was the lead investigator in the DCRC SMILE* study which found that a specially developed program of ‘humour therapy’ in residential aged care facilities resulted in a 20 per cent reduction in agitation compared to a control group and provided much the same effect as an antipsychotic, but without the side effects.

Since that study, Dr Low has become an advocate for humour as an effective way of communicating with people who have dementia, and helping to relieve some of the confusion and discomfort the disease can lead to.

“Psychosocial research in dementia is shifting from the perception of psychosocial interventions as diversional and recreational to being therapeutic and having similar outcomes to other management interventions including pharmaceutical drug treatments.

“There has been a lot of work in this area of cognitive stimulation therapy in recent years and the pieces of the puzzle are now demonstrating that these things can affect cognition, function and behaviour.

Above: Dr Lee-Fay Low, second from left, with co-founder and creative director of the Arts Health Institute, Jean-Paul Bell (left) and CEO, Dr Maggie Haertzch (second from right) and performers, Laurie and Andy.

Dr Low says when she began working in nursing home research in 1999, it was a very medical model and there has been a certain level of scepticism around the concept of play being effective in any measurable, scientific sense.

“We had interventions where we had consultants come in and we compared the effect of having a psychogeriatric consultant with not having one and it showed that it didn’t make any difference! Everyone improved in the 11 homes.

“When we started looking at the clowns initially, with Dr Peter Sptizer and Jean Paul Bell, there was a lot of cynicism and scepticism.  People said it was demeaning to older people, families said ‘oh, it’s not for us’ or our parent or relative etc is ‘too far gone’.

But Dr Lee says there is something of a revolution taking place in aged care and dementia care with the huge cultural and policy shift to a person-centred approach to care.

“The same approach doesn’t work for everyone; some people love games; others hate them, always have. Some love music or singing.  It needs to be an ‘engagement centred approach’, it should be tailored and personal.

She says a tailored approach is generally easier in the community care environment because one on one engagement and interaction is more natural to that setting.

“In the nursing home setting you have a group of people caring for a group of other people.  In the community it is one on one and that is the key.

“The culture of the nursing home is critical, which is why it is important that management needs to be supportive.  The evidence is clear that the more supportive management is and more engaged staff are in delivering that tailored approach, the better results you get.

“There needs to be a relationship-based culture not a task-based one,” she said.

Permission to Play

The Inaugural Play Up Convention program has been designed to address managers, therapists, clinicians and care assistants as well as artists, researchers, policy-makers, educators.

The program is part conference, part practical workshop and includes a diverse range of presenters and facilitators ranging from medical specialists and aged care leaders through to actors, comedians and performers.

This convention attracts 11.25 hours of Continuing Professional Development, as per The College of Nursing CPD Program.   Members of Diversional Therapy Australia attending will attract 10 continuing education points.

For all information about this event, go to the Play Up Convention website.

* The Sydney Multisite Intervention of LaughterBosses and ElderClowns (SMILE Study) was completed in 2011 and is the subject of a film that was screened on ABC TV called, The Smile Within.



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