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.”


Retrieved from:


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:

Poverty Affects Brain Growth and Development in Children

How Brains are Built: The Core Story of Brain Development

The American poverty epidemic is many things to many people. A cause to rally around for some, a target of political debate for others, and a fact of society often ignored by many. But, for the 46.5 million Americans living below the poverty line (Current Population Survey, 2013), it is a reality that brings challenges, stress, and hardships most of us will never face. 15 million of these Americans are children, born and raised in an environment that is dictated by their socioeconomic status. (Hanson, et al, 2013) These children often experience increased exposure to family turmoil, violence, separation from their family, instability, and end up receiving less support from their community. (Hanson, et al, 2013). Recent studies have shown that such an environment as a substantial impact on brain development.

The direct causes are not clear, but the differences in children’s brain growth and development are likely due to the fact that low-SES children generally experience lower cognitive stimulation and enrichment, are spoken to less and in less sophisticated ways, and are less likely to be engaged in literary activities. (Hanson, et al, 2013) Consequently, these children are more likely to suffer with learning, behavioral, mental, and physical health problems than children from higher-SES homes. Similar animal studies have also yielded the same results. When researchers manipulate their environments to limit stimuli and increase stress, the animals tend to have smaller brains, fewer neurons, dendrites, synapses, glial cells, and myelination when compared to animals that have not had their environments altered. (Hanson, et al, 2013) Twin studies show gray matter development in particular, is impacted by our environment verses our genes. (Hanson, et al, 2013) When researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studied children from birth to age 4, results showed that poor children lag behind in the development of the parietal and frontal regions of the brain. The developmental difference in these areas likely explains many of the behavioral, learning, and attention problems observed in higher rates among lower-SES children. (Wood, 2013)



This figure shows total gray matter volume for group by age.

Age in months is shown on the horizontal axis, spanning from 5 to 37 months. Total gray matter volume is shown on the vertical axis. The blue line shows children from Low SES households; children from Mid SES households are shown in red. The green line shows children from High SES households. (Hanson, et al, 2013) doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0080954.g002


This figure shows frontal lobe gray matter volumes for group by age.

Age in months is shown on the horizontal axis, spanning from 5 to 37 months. Total gray matter volume is shown on the vertical axis. The blue line shows children from Low SES households; children from Mid SES households are shown in red. The green line shows children from High SES households. (Hanson, et al, 2013) doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0080954.g003


This figure shows parietal lobe gray matter volumes for group by age.

Age in months is shown on the horizontal axis, spanning from 5 to 37 months. Total gray matter volume is shown on the vertical axis. The blue line shows children from Low SES households; children from Mid SES households are shown in red. The green line shows children from High SES households. (Hanson, et al, 2013) doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0080954.g004


A lack of nurturing may be a specific detrimental difference experienced by children in poverty. A study from the Washington University School of Medicine observed children between the ages of 6-12 as they interacted with their parent. Parents living in poverty were observed to be more stressed and less capable of nurturing impatient children. MRIs revealed that these same children had less gray and white matter in their brains, and smaller amygdala’s and hippocampus’s, affecting their emotions, memory, and learning abilities. (Whiteman, 2013)

Are these simply people displaying bad parenting skills? Shouldn’t we blame them instead of the child’s environment? In response to the August 2013 findings in Science, which stated that poverty hurts people’s ability to make decisions and has the affect of losing 13 IQ points (Thompson, 2013), The Atlantic published some comments written by people experiencing poverty first hand. A few of the revealing statement by one reader included, “I will never not be poor. I have proven that I am a Poor Person, that is all I am or ever will be. I will never have large pleasures to hold on to. We don’t plan long-term because we’ll just get our hearts broken. It’s best not to hope. You just take what you can get as you spot it.” (Thompson, 2013) It is clear that the mindset and outlook of a person in poverty is very different than those living in higher socioeconomic classes. The sense of the “inescapability of poverty is so severe that one abandons long-term planning entirely.” (Thompson, 2013) This may help us understand how and why a parent in poverty interacts with, and relates to, a child differently than those without these issues.

The good news is that these developmental lags need not be permanent. With proper stimulation, these children can catch up and close the gap. Finding ways to provide an enriched, safe environment, teaching caregivers to be more nurturing, and giving children time to play and explore are of vital importance. (Wood, 2013) It is up to society to determine what can be done to close the gap, and give these children the same ability to take advantage of opportunities as their wealthier peers. It is not enough to simply leave these children to fail or succeed on their own. The cost to society, in terms of financial, intellectual, emotional, and health issues, is too great to simply be ignored. Personally, I hope to work towards my teaching certification after graduating from Cedar Crest with my BA in Psychology. By tailoring my education to serve those in urban, low-income schools, I can try to be a small part of the bigger need to improve the future of these kids.


Reference List:

Current Population Survey 2013 Annual Social and Economic Supplement. (2013). United States Census Bureau. Retrieved from:

Hanson, Jamie. Hair, Nicole. Shen, Dinggang. Shi, Feng. Gilmore, John. Wolfe, Barbara. Pollak, Seth. (2013, December 11) Family Poverty Affects the Rate of Human Infant Brain Growth. PLoS One 8(12). Retrieved from:

Thompson, Derek. (2013, November) Your Brain on Poverty: Why Poor People Seem to Make Bad Decisions. The Atlantic. Retrieved from:

Wood, Janice. (2013) Poverty Hinders Kids’ Early Brain Development. Psych Central. Retrieved from:

Whiteman, Honor. (2013, October 29). Childhood Poverty Affects Brain Development. Medical News Today. Retrieved from:


Human Language Development

As many of you are aware, I am a first time mom to a nine-month-old son, Dylan.  Watching the human brain develop has been an amazing journey over the last 18 months.  Ultrasound pictures revealed the development of structures; motor movements have progressed from reaching and grasping to crawling and climbing.  I fear I am in for nonstop chasing once he starts walking since he is already into everything!


The most exciting milestone that he is working towards is language.  As a very colicky, hard to soothe baby, I was assaulted with more than six months of nonstop screaming and crying.  We may not know what he was trying to communicate, but this was his only way to vocalize and have his needs met.  I also discovered that there are countless theories to explain this type of extreme infant behavior from digestive issues, to immature nervous systems, to personality and temperament, but that is a whole other topic that I could write about for days.  Happily, he has moved on from incessant screaming to continuous babbling and vocalization that amuses everyone and encourages everyone around him to carry on conversations, trying to image what exciting things he might be trying to tell us.

Language development in humans is one characteristic that separates us from all other animals.  Language can best be described as “communication through words or symbols for words.” (Wright, 2013)  What distinguishes human language from animal communication is the use of grammar.  These rules of speech enable individual thoughts to be expressed and comprehended by the listener. (Wright, 2013)  The path to this highly complex ability begins when infants develop early speech and comprehension in the first days, months, and years of life, even before formal introduction begins.  It has been observed that infants in every culture begin to develop language skills on a relatively fixed timetable, leading one to assume that progression of the developing brain in humans is designed to master all of the skills that make language and communication possible.

Scientists have long believed that an early critical period for successful language development exists in the first years of life.  This critical period may begin even earlier than previously thought.  Even in the womb, infants recognize speech and language sounds from the mother.  A recent study showed that infants at 30 hours old distinguish between their native language and a foreign language. (McElroy, 2013)  Each aspect of learning language likely has its own unique critical period.  Phonetic, lexical, and syntax are learned at varying intervals.  Phonetics are likely the earliest and most important key for building on later learning.  (Kuhl, 2011)

With so many parts of the brain involved in the complexity of language skills, it can take until adolescence to exhibit a mastery of the skills.  As the brain develops, higher areas come online, and the pruning of neural circuits begins while strengthening existing connections, language skills can be improved and begin to build.  Most of these skills are processed in difference areas of the left hemisphere, such as Broca’s area for verbal pronunciation and Wernicke’s area where incoming messages are understood and outgoing sentences are constructed.  However, the right hemisphere is also involved in understanding and interpreting meaning and messages.  Because each area develops at its own time and speed, language development is an ongoing process from birth (or before) into adulthood.  (Healy, 2004, p.183)  How language is used also develops and gains complexity throughout childhood.  At the basic level, language is used to satisfy needs and wants.  It then moves on to controlling behaviors in the self and others, establishing interpersonal connections, expressing likes and dislikes, asking questions and collecting information, expressing creativity and ideas.  Using language contributes to development and maturation of the brain and intelligence.

Four Stages in Acquiring Language

Several years ago, a new line of baby teaching tools exploded on the market.  DVDs, CDs, and other technology-based products promised early speech and reading abilities, and would increase your child’s intelligence level before school.  These products were quickly dismissed, however, when studies showed that television and other tech based tools could not develop infants’ abilities in the same way a live human can.  The presence of human interaction is critical for language learning.  Social understanding has been theorized as a “gate” that enables an infant’s brain to make the neural connections that process phonetic learning.  (Kuhl, 2011)  It is this critical factor that has been used to explain the drastic difference in language acquisition by children raised in lower socioeconomic status homes.  The SES correlation is actually a difference in the input infants receive regarding the quality and amount of language they are exposed to.  The complexity of language used by the child’s primary caregiver, or quality of motherese (speech patterns adults use that offers clear words, higher pitch, and longer pauses between sounds (Healy, 2004)) is the factor affecting development in language areas of the brain, such as Broca’s areas and the amount of left hemisphere gray matter.  Thus, social interaction, body language, context, and emotion are all important aspects of language learning that Baby Einstein videos cannot replicate.  The higher the quality of language input to the developing brain, the higher the quality output from the child as they learn to communicate.

As parents, we seek out information to create the best possible learning environment for infants and young children.  However, natural exploration and social interaction are the most important teaching tools we can offer.  Interactive play and hands on experience provides meaning to the words they hear.  (Healy, 2004)  Positive, loving interactions makes language input a pleasant experience and prevents tuning out, which can lead to poor listening habits.  (Healy, 2004)  Running commentary about our actions, events, and normal activities links words and conversation to rich descriptions and abstract ideas (Healy, 2004)  It is this complex layer of sound, meaning, rules, and immersed learning that enables complete language development using the entire brain and moving from babbling to first words, to self expression, to higher level reasoning.  As a mom, I am simply anxiously awaiting the day when I can say to Dylan, “I love you,” and he replies with his own expression of, “Lub you too, Mommy!”

The following website includes a great video that discusses the different theories of language development in children:  Linguistics: Language Development In Children


Here are a few videos of my little guy moving through the first year stages, as well as his ultrasound picture showing his development at 13 weeks gestation.



Dylan at Two Months:


Dylan at Four Months:


Dylan at Eight Months:



Healy, Jane M.  (2004)  Your Child’s Growing Mind: Brain Development and Learning From Birth to Adolescence.  New York, NY: Broadway Books. p. 191-205

Kuhl, Patricia K.  (September 2011)  Early Language Learning and Literacy: Neuroscience Implications for Education.  Mind, Brain, and Education, 5: 128–142.  Retrieved from:

McElroy, Molly.  (January 2, 2013)  While In Womb, Babies Begin Learning Language From Their Mothers.  University of Washington News.  Retrieved from:

Wright, Anthony.  (2013) Chapter 8: Higher Cortical Functions – Language.  Neuroscience Online: Electronic Textbook for Neuroscience.  Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy at The University of Texas Medical School at Houston.  Retrieved from:




Hello class!  I am 35, married, and a new mommy to our eight month old son, Dylan.  I currently live near Macungie, grew up in central Bucks County, and lived in Princeton, NJ throughout my 20s.  I have been attending Cedar Crest College for two years, and am finally nearing the end!  I have an associate’s degree from LCCC in Business Administration, and will soon hold a BA in Applied Psychology.  I am working hard to get accepted at Lehigh University in the School Psychology program.  In my prior life, I worked as an executive assistant for CEO’s at public companies in NJ.    I also rode horses competitively for 20 years, and worked closely with pet rescue agencies across the state.  Although all my other activities except school are on hold while my son is still young, I hope to have a life again some day!

I love my psych classes at Cedar Crest, although this one is going to be difficult for me.  Biological sciences is not my strong suit, especially when we start discussing brain anatomy and chemical interactions!  Hopefully I can learn a lot while not killing my GPA during this course!