Consequences of Play Deprivation in Humans

Whatever your position on the importance of play in a human’s life, it happens. Humans play, we create games, compete, explore objects in the world around us, and if none of this is possible, we play in our minds, creating worlds, friends and identities. Human beings play, it’s something we do better and more than any other create on Earth, it is part of us. But what about the people who don’t play freely? There are some who do not know what it is like to play spontaneously. There are those who live in a world where play is not accepted, where it is punished, where it has simply never been. Still there are others who live in a world where many types of free play are unsafe and attempting to play puts them in harm’s way. It is clear that a growing body of research is being produced dealing with the topic of play deprivation – the phenomena of a lack of play in a human beings life and even in entire communities. The effects of this are negative. Nothing good or positive has been found, at this point in history and in my research, to show that restricting or forbidding free, explorative, spontaneous play creates a single positive outcome in the people and communities where play is restricted.

“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” – Plato

Mammals play! Like humans, other mammals develop better when allowed to play spontaneously.

Missiuna and Pollock created perhaps the most simplistic yet powerful statement regarding this entire issue. They assert that self-initiated play experiences are critical for the normal development of children (1991). I have searched to find strong research to refute this statement, but as of this point in time, I have failed to locate a study that adequately contradicts this simple position. While their research deals primarily with play in the lives of children with physical disabilities, a generalization may be made with all children. They go as far as stating that children with physical disabilities who are also deprived from activities associated with normal play activities are seen as having not one, but two disabilities that hinder their potential for quality independent performance and behavior (1991). It is not stretch to imagine that the same would be probable in the life of children who do not suffer from known physical disabilities. After all a completely different set of circumstances were researched by Brown and Webb that supported the finding of Missiuna and Pollock. Brown and Webb researched abandoned Romanian children living in a pediatric hospital living under less than humane conditions. They found these children failed to thrive, they talked less, interacted with each other almost never, did not smile or laugh and had almost no response to their environment at all. By simply incorporating the opportunity to engage in play-work projects, these researchers noted significant changes in every child in the study. The children’s social interaction immediately began to progress and become more complex, their fine and gross motor skills quickly began to develop and improve, their understanding of their environment and surrounding world improved greatly and they began to play and interact in more sophisticated ways (2005). This longitudinal study began in 1999 and continues to this day, now under the direction of Dr. Cornel Puscas.

“Men do not quit playing because they grow old; they grow old because they quit playing.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

Play is vital for optimal human relationship development throughout every stage of the life span.

Having seen and worked with children trapped in their minds, stuck in a solitary world where they rock in their chairs and stare blankly at the wall for days on end, Dr. Puscas knows all too well, the changes that can transpire when play projects are introduced to children in such circumstances. Not surprisingly, his observation is not all that different from the other researchers I have studied. Affirming the previous statement by Missiuna and Pollock, Dr. Puscas says that in his experience, play is probably the most important contributor to the subsequent social well-being of the children in his facility (2005). This falls in line with much of the current research being conducted on the topic of the effects of play deprivation on children. It seems that when play is non-existent, children fail to thrive socially, cognitively and physically. Conversely, when play is instituted as a regular part of a child’s life, it appears to have an almost miraculous effect on children who had previously suffered in a play deprived lifestyle.  Brown states that of all creatures in the animal kingdom, human beings are the biggest players of all. He goes on to say that humans are not only designed to play, but that we play be design – it’s hardwired in our physiology to play. Dr. Brown’s research finds that when human beings play, they engage in one of the purest, most unadulterated expressions of humanity and what he finds to be perhaps the truest expression of a person’s individuality (2009).

“Combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.” – Albert Einstein

Play is part of a quality life and part of optimal development.

Frost, in his book, A History of Children’s Play and Play Environments, discusses play in ancient times and traces its history into the modern world. His findings are not all that different from those identified in this review of current literature, just more thorough and all encompassing. Regardless of how Frost’s book stacks up against current research articles, his findings and conclusions are consistent with those of the researchers mentioned in this article. Frost identified play as a vital aspect of the human condition, something we not only do naturally, but that we need. He finds play to be essential to many aspects of being human (2010). From ancient Rome and Greece, he is able to draw parallels to the growth and expansion of individuals, families, towns, cities and nations, all tied to their acceptance and participation in the many aspects of spontaneous and structured play. Frost also contrasts these findings with recent circumstances where modern children struggle not only academically, but emotionally, socially and physically. Frost touches on the many factors associated with childhood obesity in a world where play is commercialized and governed by the amount of screen-time a child has per day. In a world where the extent of active engaging play for most children may be a brief, uncoordinated and awkward tussle in the hall at school with a friend, Frost connects the challenges societies face with the lack of, and in some cases mandated exclusion of play not only among children, but adults alike.

“Genius is play, and man’s capacity for achieving genius is infinite, and many may achieve genius only through play.” – William Saroyan

Play can be done alone or in a group. No matter the setting, creative interactions with the environment produces gains in mental, physical and emotional well-being.

My understanding of the many aspects surrounding the topic of play is novice at best. I admittedly am new to the great and growing body of research-based knowledge about this topic. Nevertheless, I am able to understand one thing and that is that all of the researchers in this paper must have it right. Regardless of the minutia, it is seemingly clear that human beings thrive in many dynamic ways when play is a regular part of their lifestyle. And, on the other hand, it is just as obvious, if not more so, that people, when unable to play fail to thrive, they fail to form binding relationships, they fail to use their minds in ways that create complex thoughts and ideas and they fail to develop in a way that allows them to function as a productive, engaged member of society. I think that what medical doctor, researcher and author Stuart Brown finds must be true; “play shapes the brain, opens our imaginations and invigorates our souls.”


Brown, F., Webb, S. (2005). Children without play. J of Education. 35: 139-158.

Brown, S. L. (2009). Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul. New York, NY: Penguin Group, Inc.

Frost, J (2010). A History of Children’s Play and Play Environments. New York, NY: Routledge.

Missiuna, C., Pollock, N. (1991). Play deprivation in children with physical disabilities: the role of the occupational therapist in preventing secondary disability. Am J Occup Ther. 45(10): 882-8.

Molnar, B.E., Gortmaker, S.L., Bull, F.C., Buka, S.L. (2004). Unsafe to play? Neighborhood disorder and lack of safety predict reduced physical activity among urban children and adolescents. Am J Health Promot. 18(5): 378-86.

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