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It's So Important, the Times Mag Covered It

Dr. Brown and his institute, which we discussed last month, were profiled in this weekend's New York Times Magazine (thanks for the tip, Laena).

After an explanation that play, as observed among animals in nature, diminishes in times of distress, the article poses the central question, "If play is an extravagance, why has it persisted?" In other words, if it's inessential to survival, why do animals (including humans) still do it?

Well, based on how this husky's play skills stopped its ass from getting chewed by a hungry polar bear, I'd say play is more than simply an extravagance. However, I'd also say that play gives its participants confidence. Play is situational and safe—it's the acting out of an otherwise real situation in a safe context, one in which there's nothing at stake. Whether or not the specific actions of play are exact correlates of the real situation matters little. What matters is that the participants in play face a challenge under controlled conditions.

This is why martial arts training and apprenticeships are such successful systems. They involve an aspect of play—at least in the sense that the trainees are engaged in actions that simulate the real but don't carry the ultimate consequences of the real. After many many simulated challenges and circumstances, the trainee gains enough confidence to perform the action for real and often does so successfully, whether that action is breaking a board or fending off a real attacker or crafting a beautiful or useful object.

This aspect of play holds profound implications for education and art and business. By providing a safe place for newbies to learn and test their skills and knowledge, we're actually providing a great service to them and to the craft or field we hold dear. By providing a safe place for those who would follow in our footsteps, we ensure the security of our chosen field for at least one more generation—though I suspect in doing so, we ensure it for several more generations beyond.

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