15 February 2019

Meet our team of 'Healthy play, better coping'

Prof. Louk Vanderschuren about children's and animal's play

Prof. Louk Vanderschuren is a Professor of Neurobiology of Behaviour at Utrecht University's Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. As a neurobiologist, he studies the behaviour of rodents and other animals to see what happens in their brain when enjoyable or unpleasant things happen to them, and when they take wise or unwise decisions. Louk Vanderschuren is affiliated with the interdisciplinary theme 'Healthy Play, Better Coping' of the strategic theme Dynamics of Youth.

Prof. Louk Vanderschuren

Put scientists together who are all interested in play: in how rats play, in how children play. It does not get much younger or more dynamic at a university. Just how playful is Louk Vanderschuren himself? "At work, I mostly play with words. Child's play is very elastic: a four-year old child plays very differently than an eight-year-old. As you grow up, play becomes less physical. Adults play with words, make jokes, give verbal jabs; some jab back. But physical play, other than sports? We had a dart board in the break room for a time, but I'm not much of a darts enthusiast."

Play: good for your behavioural repertoire

Young animals and children enjoy playing. In brain research terms, play is a natural reward, just like food and sex. In addition to being fun, play serves as social interaction training: while at play, animals and people learn with whom they can and cannot get along and what they can and cannot do (or say). Therefore, play also means experimenting with your behavioural repertoire; while playing you can try out all sorts of situations and scenarios, without it immediately having serious consequences.

Therefore, play also means experimenting with your behavioural repertoire; while playing you can try out all sorts of situations and scenarios, without it immediately having serious consequences.

With respect to the 'natural rewards,' food and sex are the most important because they are necessary for survival. But how does play contribute to survival? Vanderschuren: "According to our research and that of others, if you deprive animals of play, they can still eat and have sex, but they have trouble picking up on nuances. In social interaction they skip all kinds of useful steps. For example, in a hostile situation, animals that have never played immediately attack, without threatening first – the 'game' with which an actual fight to the death can be avoided. For animals, going straight into attack mode is very impractical energy-wise." Based on the research by Vanderschuren and his peers, it also appears that animals that grow up without play are more susceptible to addiction: "They use more alcohol and cocaine. Their impulse control is lacking, too."

What we already know about the nascent brain of rodents can help increase knowledge about the nascent social brain of children; we do not know much about that yet.


These are the main links between Vanderschuren's animal science world and 'Healthy play, better coping'. "Conversely, I want to supplement our knowledge with what I learn about the playing behaviour of children. Our research takes place in a lab setting, but naturally we also want to know what happens in a natural environment."
Vanderschuren gives one example of a question that interests him: "We see children with chronic illnesses subsequently experiencing significant social and emotional problems. Could this be related to the fact that they had so little opportunity to play, or were treated too gingerly? They are often outsiders. Is their playing behaviour actually different from that of healthy children? Would we be able to change something about that by ensuring that they can participate more?"

Gaming is play

As a fundamental researcher, it is refreshing for Vanderschuren to be part of such a varied group as 'Healthy Play'. "I have already become acquainted with so many other perspectives on the phenomenon of play. Take Sander Bakkes, who ponders the structure of games and says to people like me: hang on, gaming is not just sitting hunched over in front of a console for hours! After all, that does tend to be the image: boys who only sit and rack up lots of points for something. But Sander lets me see that digital games can in fact be playful and social."

His 10-year-old and 14-year-old sons are also proof of this, by the way. "Take FIFA, a football game. As a player, you choose which team you want to play as, like FC Barcelona. They both picked Barça, and both opted for the home kit, too. Consequently, what you saw on the screen was two teams playing against each other that looked exactly the same. What I thought was amusing was that they deliberately made it difficult for themselves as a way to have the most fun."

Table football

Back to the dartboard in the break room for a moment. Vanderschuren remains hopeful. "Recently I saw a table football table in the office of some colleagues. Maybe that's something for here! We also have one at home; it was a present for my son. And yes, I did have something to do with that choice of gift. I also enjoy playing actual football – I'm a coach and a trainer – but my knees don't really appreciate lots of football these days."

In addition to being a Professor at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Louk Vanderschuren is also President-Elect of the European Behavioural Pharmacology Society, as well as the editor of the scientific journal Behavioural Pharmacology.

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?​