13 March 2019

Meet our team of 'Healthy play, Better coping'

Prof. Heidi Lesscher: "By playing, animals and humans learn to recognise dangerous situations and assess risks much more effectively"

Dr. Heidi Lesscher is an Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. Having previously earned a degree in biopharmacy and taken her doctorate for a study of cocaine sensitivity in rodents, Lesscher has been studying alcohol use in rats since 2006 in order to learn more about how addiction occurs and its underlying neurobiological mechanisms. In fact, she recently expanded her research repertoire and is now exploring the relationship between play behaviour and susceptibility to addiction.

Prof. Heidi Lesscher

Does play influence susceptibility to alcohol addiction? Is there a connection between playing a lot or very little, on the one hand, and the loss of control on the other? The studies conducted by Heidi and her colleagues revealed that lab animals that play a great deal also consume a great deal of alcohol if given the chance, but that they retain more control over their use than animals that were denied the opportunity to play at a young age. In other words: rats who played displayed fewer behaviours associated with addiction. "By playing, animals – and humans – learn to recognise dangerous situations and assess risks much more effectively than non-playing peers of the same species. Addiction often entails conflict, like between using and friendships, or using versus your health. It could be that play is significant to the ability to deal with such situations, and therefore to addiction susceptibility as well."

Everybody has a personal connection to play, and we are all intuitively aware that play is vital for proper development.

Resilience

Play appeals to virtually anyone’s imagination and has been the subject of much attention. "It’s also a theme with a lot of energy behind it," according to Heidi. "Everybody has a personal connection to play, and we are all intuitively aware that play is vital for proper development. The goal of our research is to gain better understanding of this. The study on addiction susceptibility, for instance, shows that play is important in helping us deal with difficult situations and setbacks as adults. When we play, we also receive social feedback: what is desirable and undesirable behaviour, and where are your own personal boundaries and those of other people? And because you learn to cope with a wide range of emotions during play, it contributes to your individual resilience."

Beyond your own discipline

Within the ‘Healthy play / Better coping’ project, the neurobiologists are attempting to expand their knowledge of play and apply those findings to children. They are focusing on social play in particular, as it is easier to study in animal trials. Heidi: "But is it possible to quantify group play among children, too, and will we be able to make any pronouncements regarding the importance of play for pro-social behaviour? These are the exciting, interdisciplinary questions that we will be working to answer. I find each and every member of the core team to be deeply inspiring. It’s a way to peek over the fence, so to speak, to learn each other’s language and consider your own work from someone else’s perspective. Normally, my work wouldn’t bring me into contact with any studies involving children. And on my own, I never would have come up with the idea to research what happens when rats are excluded from social play."

It’s a way to peek over the fence, so to speak, to learn each other’s language and consider your own work from someone else’s perspective.

She is quite interested in collaborations with parties outside UU and the Wilhelmina Children’s Hospital, such as with play therapists from the HU University of Applied Sciences. The plan is to ask them to investigate play among children who are either patients at the Wilhelmina Children’s Hospital or part of the Dynamics of Youth research population. What do play therapists observe, do and think when working with chronically ill children?

"Play is extremely complex and diverse. How does one measure the intensity of play?"

Objective measurements

According to Heidi, the greatest challenge will be to develop an objective method for measuring play among children. ‘Play is extremely complex and diverse. How does one measure the intensity of play? And how can you quantify play when children have very different play styles? How can you observe and record what happens in which phase of play? While a few measuring instruments have previously been developed, these tend to be qualitative in nature. Those are things we’ll need to look into.’

Besides that, she feels that the broader the study, the better. "I’m someone with wide range of interests anyway, and I recognise how important play is to development – in how many areas it impacts children and animals. I’ve always been fascinated by individual resilience, and the positive spin we can put on the topic with this theme really appeals to me. It’s about learning what chronically ill children can do, and what we can do to serve their interests. Yes, play and research bring together a whole host of aspects if you ask me."

Ball games and more 

So what type of play did she herself engage in, as a child in the early 1980s? "Indoors, I did a lot of individual activities like arts and crafts and jigsaw puzzles. But mostly I played outdoors, which was really common back then. After dinner we went out into the neighbourhood, played hide and seek or ball games, ran about in the woods ... We were outside practically all the time, all of us kids in the neighbourhood."

Research theme Dynamics of Youth

If you want to tackle social problems, it would be best to start with children. The Utrecht-based research theme Dynamics of Youth invests in a resilient youth. Academics from all fields collaborate in order to learn to better understand child development. How can we help children and youngsters to grow and flourish in our rapidly changing society?​