Play and Brain Development

How learning and having fun are meant to happen together

Our evolution, similar to the rest of the animal kingdom, has allowed little leeway into purposeless activities. During play our brains are active in dynamic learning processes where development of our social brain is linked to the related flow state that frequently accompanies it.

Animals that play a lot quickly learn how to navigate their world and adapt to it. In short they are smarter.

-Dr. Stuart Brown, 2009

*More on flow states and peak performance:

PLAY activity is actually helping sculpt the brain

During play we can:

  • experience safety, otherwise we wouldn’t play
  • imagine and experience situations we have never encountered before and learn form them
  • create possibilities that have never existed
  • make new cognitive connections…that find their way into everyday life
  • learn lessons and skills without being at risk
  • Any others you can think of?… like different ways of interacting

How do we bring lessons from play to life?

Gerald Edelman: Nobel laureate and technical researcher

  • Created a theory about how new information is functionally integrated into the brain
  • Edelman describes how our perceptual experiences are coded within the brain in scattered maps, each of which is a complex network of interconnected neurons
  • The vitality of these maps depends on the active and incessant orchestration of countless details; it is likely that peak performance of this orchestration happens during play.

“Play’s process of capturing a pretend narrative and combining it with the reality of one’s experience in a playful setting is, at least in childhood, how we develop our major personal understanding of how the world works. We do so initially by imagining possibilities–stimulating what might be, and then testing this against what actually is.”(Brown, 2009)

Marian Diamond: Landmark research done in the 1960s at UC-Berkeley

  • Her research with colleagues showed that not only rats raised in an “enriched” environment become smarter, but their brains become larger and more complex, with a thicker and more developed cortex.
  • Secret to greater development in the rats’ brain was variety of toys and exposure to socialization…

“Like sleep, play is also an essential long-term organizer of brain development and adaptability…Play seems to be a driving force helping to sculpt how the brain continues to grow and develop.”(Brown, 2009)

Patterns of Play:

  • Attunement Play
  • Body Play and Movement
  • Object Play
  • Social Play
  • Imaginative Pretend Play
  • Storytelling-Narrative Play
  • Transformative-Integrative and Creative Play

Other Major Studies:

Neuroscientist Sergio Pellis of the University of Lethbridge in Canada and Biologist John Nelson of Monash University in Melbourne, Australia report strong positive link between brain size and playfulness for mammals in general.

  • They measured brain size and tabulated play behavior in 15 species ranging from dogs to dolphins
  • Making allowances for differing body sizes they found species with larger brains played more than species with smaller brains

Researcher Jaak Panksepp

  • Shown that active play selectively stimulates brain-derived neurotrophic factors (which stimulates nerve growth) in the amygdala (where emotions are processed) and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (where executive decisions are processed)

John Byers, an animal play scholar interested in the evolution of play

  • Detailed analysis of brain size correlated with degree of playfulness finding on an evolutionary scale that the amount of play is correlated with the development of the brain’s frontal cortex.
  • Byers speculates that during play the brain is making sense of its self through stimulation and testing.


Brown, Stuart L., and Christopher C. Vaughan. Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. New York: Avery, 2009. Print.

“Institute for Play The Patterns of Play.” Institute for Play The Patterns of Play. The National Institute For Play, 2009. Web. 28 Apr. 2013.

For further research references: