Scientists Say Child’s Play Helps Build A Better Brain

This is such a fantastic article about the effects of play on a child’s development that I just had to share it in it’s entirety:


August 06, 2014 3:43 AM ET

This week, NPR Ed is focusing on questions about why people play and how play relates to learning.

When it comes to brain development, time in the classroom may be less important than time on the playground.

“The experience of play changes the connections of the neurons at the front end of your brain,” says Sergio Pellis, a researcher at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada. “And without play experience, those neurons aren’t changed,” he says.


Let 'Em Out! The Many Benefits Of Outdoor Play In Kindergarten


It is those changes in the prefrontal cortex during childhood that help wire up the brain’s executive control center, which has a critical role in regulating emotions, making plans and solving problems, Pellis says. So play, he adds, is what prepares a young brain for life, love and even schoolwork.

But to produce this sort of brain development, children need to engage in plenty of so-called free play, Pellis says. No coaches, no umpires, no rule books.

“Whether it’s rough-and-tumble play or two kids deciding to build a sand castle together, the kids themselves have to negotiate, well, what are we going to do in this game? What are the rules we are going to follow?” Pellis says. The brain builds new circuits in the prefrontal cortex to help it navigate these complex social interactions, he says.

Learning From Animals

Much of what scientists know about this process comes from research on animal species that engage in social play. This includes cats, dogs and most other mammals. But Pellis says he has also seen play in some birds, including young magpies that “grab one another and start wrestling on the ground like they were puppies or dogs.”

For a long time, researchers thought this sort of rough-and-tumble play might be a way for young animals to develop skills like hunting or fighting. But studies in the past decade or so suggest that’s not the case. Adult cats, for example, have no trouble killing a mouse even if they are deprived of play as kittens.

John Poole / NPR/YouTube


Where does play come from? Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp gives a playful answer in this NPR animation.

So researchers like Jaak Panksepp at Washington State University have come to believe play has a very different purpose: “The function of play is to build pro-social brains, social brains that know how to interact with others in positive ways,” Panksepp says.

Panksepp has studied this process in rats, which love to play and even produce a distinctive sound he has labeled “rat laughter.” When the rats are young, play appears to initiate lasting changes in areas of the brain used for thinking and processing social interactions, Panskepp says.

The changes involve switching certain genes on and off. “We found that play activates the whole neocortex,” he says. “And we found that of the 1,200 genes that we measured, about one-third of them were significantly changed simply by having a half-hour of play.”

Of course, this doesn’t prove that play affects human brains the same way. But there are good reasons to believe it does, Pellis says.

An overview of the Berkeley Adventure Playground, where children and their parents can paint, hammer, saw and run free.

An overview of the Berkeley Adventure Playground, where children and their parents can paint, hammer, saw and run free.

David Gilkey/NPR

For one thing, he says, play behavior is remarkably similar across species. Rats, monkeys and children all abide by similar rules that require participants to take turns, play fair and not inflict pain. Play also helps both people and animals become more adept socially, Pellis says.

And in people, he says, an added bonus is that the skills associated with play ultimately lead to better grades. In one study, researchers found that the best predictor of academic performance in eighth grade was a child’s social skills in third grade.

Another hint that play matters, Pellis says, is that “countries where they actually have more recess tend to have higher academic performance than countries where recess is less.”


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The Role of Mirror Neurons in Autism

During our week 4 lecture, I first learned of mirror neurons and their role in social development. I immediately thought of the possible implications this could have had on my nephew, Michael. Now 15 and recently released from his Individualized Educational Program for the first time in his school history, Michael was formally diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at the age of four. As a toddler, family members and preschool teachers began noticing slightly odd behavior. Michael had a great deal of difficulty maintaining eye contact, trouble making transitions from one activity to another, obsessive interests such as matchbox cars, preferring categorizing toys over pretend play, little interest in peers, preferring to sit apart from groups in situations such as circle time, sensitivity to light, sound, and textures, and would exhibit stress behaviors, such as twisting his shirt and tugging his hair. It became clear that although Michael was highly functioning and extremely intelligent, he was not developing normally in his social and emotional behavior.




Since his diagnosis, the new DSM V no longer classifies Asperger’s Syndrome as a separate disorder but has incorporated these behaviors and symptoms into the Autism Spectrum Disorder (also referred to as ASD) and Social Communication Disorder (also known as SCD). ASD criteria include persistent deficits in social communication and interactions (both verbal and non-verbal), difficulty developing and maintaining relationships, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities. The symptoms must be present early in the developmental period and must cause significant impairment in social or occupational functioning, and are not better explained by an intellectual disability or developmental delay. (DSM V, 2014) SCD criteria are similar, including deficits in using communication for social purposes, impairment of the ability to change communication style to match the context of the situation, difficulties following rules for conversation and storytelling, difficulty understanding what is not explicitly stated, functional limitation in effective social communication, participation, and relationships. The onset of symptoms is typically early in the developmental period, and must not be otherwise explained by another medical or neurological condition. (DSM V, 2014)


There are countless theories regarding the cause of Autism and Communication disorders, particularly in recent years as the number of individuals diagnosed has exploded. Could the discovery of mirror neurons hold the answer? Mirror neurons, discovered in monkeys, are a type of nerve cell in the inferior frontal and inferior parietal regions of the brain, which relay signals for planning movement and carrying it out. First discovered in studies conducted in the 1980s and 1990s, they have not yet been proven to exist in humans. However, brain imaging of human subjects has revealed activity that strongly suggests a similar system of mirror neurons in the premotor cortex and inferior parietal cortex. These neurons fire both when performing an action and when observing another perform the same action. Scientists speculate mirror neurons seem to be important for understanding the actions of other people and learning new skills by imitation. They may also be important in language acquisition. (Fact Sheet, 2014) This connection between experience and perception might play a role in developing empathy and the ability to understand social cues, which are considered to be some of the main issues associated with the symptoms of ASD and SCD. (Rain, 2014)



Our ability to interpret other people’s behavior is critical to social interaction and relationships, as well as learning about and understanding our world. Within an infant’s first few days of life, they begin to imitate their caretakers’ expressions and movements. It is thought that this early imitation could be an important foundation for the development of motor control, communication, and social abilities. (Ahmed, 2011)

6a0147e0ba5e57970b0154337dc510970c-320wiThe Broken Mirror Hypothesis states that people with ASD which lack the comprehension and imitative skills have problems with the mirror neuron system and is a primary cause for their poor social skills. Brainwaves in pertinent areas were only detected in these people when they were performing an action, and other when they watched someone else perform, or mirror, the action. (Ahmed, 2011) This not only has implications for understanding others actions, but also the intentions and emotions experienced when someone is performing an action. In evolutionary terms, this type of ability could help humans predict someone’s behavior and aid in social cooperation. What is unclear is how exactly these mirror neurons interact with other brain processes, such as language and memory. It is too simplistic to merely say that a dysfunction in the mirror neurons directly cause the symptoms of Autism. A great deal of new research and understanding must be done before a clear link can be established. (Jaffe, 2007) Although there is currently quite a bit of debate surrounding mirror neurons and autism, one scientist believes their importance has been understated up to this point, rather than overstated as others are claiming. Vilayanur Ramachandran’s 2007 TED Talks, The Neurons That Shaped Civilization, provides a much more thorough and easily understandable explanation than I could hope to deliver.


As for my nephew, Michael, I am proud to say he earned nearly all A’s for his first year of high school. He is well adjusted and his teachers adore him. He is aware of his weaknesses and areas where he still needs to improve, such as maintaining eye contact and interpreting body language. He has made so much amazing progress thanks to his dedicated mother and a team of fantastic educators, and particularly the hard work that he has done for all of these years to overcome many of his challenges. I will be following this topic closely and hope for more answers that will solve the autistic puzzle for future children diagnosed and their devoted families.



Aunt Kelly and her “First Baby” Michael!!

** Special thank you to my sister, Kathy, and my nephew, Michael, for sharing part of their story **

Reference List:


DSM V Diagnostic Criteria. (2014). Autism Speaks. Retrieved from:


Fact Sheet: Mirror Neurons and Autism. (2014) Synapse. Retrieved from:


Ahmed, Sammy. (Fall, 2011) Mirror Neurons And Autism: A Social Perspective. Online Publication of Undergraduate Studies. New York University, Department of Applied Psychology. Retrieved from:


Jaffe, Eric. (May 2007) Mirror Neurons: How We Reflect On Behavior. Observer. Association for Psychological Science. Retrieved from:


Rain, Ella. (2014) Mirror Neurons As the Cause for Autism. Love To Know Autism. Retrieved from: