On August 1, 1966, the day psychiatrist Stuart Brown started his assistant professorship at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, 25-year-old Charles Whitman climbed to the top of the University of Texas Tower on the Austin campus and shot 46 people. Whitman, an engineering student and a former U.S. Marine sharpshooter, was the last person anyone expected to go on a killing spree. After Brown was assigned as the state’s consulting psychiatrist to investigate the incident and later, when he interviewed 26 convicted Texas murderers for a small pilot study, he discovered that most of the killers, including Whitman, shared two things in common: they were from abusive families, and they never played as kids.
Brown did not know which factor was more important. But in the 42 years since, he has interviewed some 6,000 people about their childhoods, and his data suggest that a lack of opportunities for unstructured, imaginative play can keep children from growing into happy, well-adjusted adults. “Free play,” as scientists call it, is critical for becoming socially adept, coping with stress and building cognitive skills such as problem solving. Research into animal behavior confirms play’s benefits and establishes its evolutionary importance: ultimately, play may provide animals (including humans) with skills that will help them survive and reproduce.