Should we keep score or just play for fun?

A case for fun.

Imagine a world where “fun” is the end-game. Parents encourage children to play what gives them joy and help them eventually discern what gives them the MOST joy. The goal being to ensure as one grows up, we learn which recreational activities brings us the most happiness and contentment, based on years of free play and experiencing fun. What would happen if every child was encouraged to discover their fullest potential using fun as the barometer? If every child was encouraged to play any activity they liked regardless if they were good or not, the goal being fun. Never mind competition or who wins, only encouragement to find what brings them joy. If the goal is to have the most fun with measurement being “thrill”, “laughter” and “joy” of the activity and “fun” being the end-game instead of “winning”, we might have significantly less depression and mental illness.

There is no shortage of documentation supporting “having fun” is important to well-being. If an individual goes without laughter or enjoyment for more than two weeks the lack of endorphins can cause symptoms of depression. If the lack of fun continues for months or years psychosis can set in causing an onslaught of mental issues.

“Recreational deprivation has been linked to criminality, obesity, and declining creativity.” Bekoff, Marc PhD “The Importance of Play: Having Fun must be taken seriously.”

The best behavioral health hospitals know this, they strive to “retrain” the brain by ensuring patients are physically active and doing something fun every day. Training the brain to “reframe” a negative response into a positive response takes years and is a goal of cognitive behavior therapy and taught using “fun recreation.”

Stuart Brown’s work reveals that severely play-deprived children manifest multiple psychopathologies: conversely, the histories of successful, creative people show social play’s vital part in healthy development. It seems that emotional control, social competence, personal resiliency and curiosity accrue through developmentally appropriate play experiences. Stuart Brown, founder and president of the U.S. National Institute for Play and author of Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul (2009)

Competition is an important skill to know but it is not needed for mental health, it was needed for “survival of the fittest” which is one of the reasons sports originated. However, free play is important for healthy cognitive development in ways that structured play, video games and sports cannot.

Sergio Pellis, professor of neuroscience at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, offers further neurological support for free play’s significance. ”… research clearly shows that it is unstructured play, where partners have to negotiate the rules and learn how to deal with infringements, that is most important for the beneficial effects on the prefrontal cortex. That is, neither non-social play on a video screen nor structured play as in organized sports provide the relevant experiences provided by the free play generated by kids themselves.”

Consider the following scenarios:

  1. The all-too-often professional athlete plays baseball because his father played or lived vicariously thru his success. Imagine his stress the day he realizes he is unhappy spending his weekends training to keep up with competition and avoiding disappointing his father.

2. Conversely, the athlete who plays because he loves playing baseball and nothing brings him more happiness than a day playing baseball.

The emotional toll of the first athlete and mental duress would have been avoided had he been encouraged to play the games that brought HIM happiness, not his father.

Competition has it’s place in the world but to believe winning is the only goal causes a lifetime of disappointment for some. Identical twins are born, one likes and succeeds in a sport and one does not. What happened? Usually there is an incident when one sibling realizes they can’t play as well as the other sibling so they decide not to play… even if the sport brought them joy. Learned competition overpowers desire for joy of the sport. If encouraged, they may find another sport or develop interests in other hobbies like music and art. If nothing brings joy like the first sport they gave up, they may never return to the sport and the importance of competition overrides the residual benefits of joy, instilling a skewed understanding of what inspires happiness and contentment.

If the primary goal is to have fun and certain activities are more fun than others, one would naturally gravitate toward the “most fun” activity.

The typical wayward youth would naturally self regulate their own path, choosing their sport, hobby or talent based on what brings them the most content and happiness. Serving as a “guiding light” by focusing on fun could develop additional valuable skills. One would begin to know what is “right” for them and what is not, without going through the painful process of choosing a sport or activity for “other reasons” like pleasing parents, peers or other dysfunctional motivations. Once again, “play” teaches us… following your heart is “a good move” in sports and life.


Published as a class assignment for Sport Public Relations

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