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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  1. Great information! Free play helps build imaginations, social skills and cognitive and learning skills. It is a shame that our schools have taken away recess or lessened the amount of time children have at this activity. I think it allows the child to process what the have learned in the classroom and often make sense of their new knowledge through first hand experience and free play. One of my daughters had an “imaginary” friend. at first I was a little freaked by it seeing her talk to herself, or to want to include her friend in family activities, but somewhere I read it is a sign of a genius. Who knows…? but she is very smart. I never discouraged her from playing with her imaginary friend, although my other children would at first sometimes tease her. After talking to them about it, they were more receptive the teasing stopped and they just accepted this friend as someone very important to their sister, They would even include the friend in activities they were engaged in together. Over all I think this was a great learning experience for all of us. I’d like to believe that this helped to develop my children’s ability to learn and adapt to changes and social issues they may encounter.

  2. I really enjoyed this blog post because anything that is related to children and what is important for proper development of a child is also super intriguing to me! I do remember learning in an early childhood course I took in high school that play is a child’s work! Children must play and your post here has definitely emphasized that and taught me more about the importance of play that I was already aware of.

    I specifically understand and agree that play really must help a child develop socially! I encourage my friends that are all beginning to have children that if try only have one child they should try to get them in daycare because it allows them to interact with other children so much more, and that interaction or play is still just as important even before school age years as we call them at my work.

    The video was also very interesting because it emphasized what we had learned about evolution. That a trait is only passed on if it is essential for reproduction successfully. Obviously play is important if it is seen from species to species! The video was rally cute in how it portrayed the information, especially with the two male rats fighting over the female rat and the male with more play won. It definitely emphasizes that play is important for social skills! Thanks for sharing,


  3. I agree, children do better academically when they are active in sports or other activities that involve body moments. My grand son is 10. He was having trouble concentrating and had no interest in school. He found it boring. We looked into after school activities and he started flag football and playing an instrument. He was very active and his concentration was outstanding. His attitude changed for the better.

  4. This is a great post. I absolutely agree that free play helps build a child minds. It gives the opportunity to use there imagination and be creative. It allows the chance to think freely without some telling them what to do. Which I feel helps children learn how to work through things and be more observant. As I read you post I though about a picture I saw on an amazing blog I follow called Human of New York. Brandon the creator of it all is not in the Middle East photographing the local people and getting their stories. On post he posted was of three young boys who had been run from there village playing with cans. They told him they were making a car he thought the can they had in their hands where the cars he was referring too but when he came back they had actually built a car and were using the can as wheel. They had no manual no aunt telling them what to do just each other figuring things out! I thought it was amazing. I posted the link below so you all can take a look.

  5. Watching my kids I completely agree that play equals learning. They seem to pick up so much playing together that I always encourage play, and don’t try to force structured learning. I want them to love learning and to learn as much as they can, especially while they are still little sponges. Of course, my hope is that the sponges pick up good stuff, but without fail they always tend to grab a hold of what you hope they didn’t hear or weren’t paying attention to. 🙂

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