Play is Learning

Play is Learning

As my friend’s daughter built a tower of sand, my friend wondered aloud whether time in the sandbox could be counted as home school hours.  “What are you learning?” she wondered aloud, then concluded, “Probably not a whole lot.”  My friend is one of many parents who, due to COVID-19 and restrictions on in-person learning, suddenly find themselves responsible for much if not all of their child’s education.  In this new role, parents who would have otherwise decried too much testing in regular schools now grasp for evidence that their children are increasing in academic knowledge. Virtual learning is an uncomfortable fit, particularly for children below the age of 7, but the alternative seems worse.  If they play all day, what are they learning?  Will they be behind?  

The good news, in a time when parents could use something positive, is that play is learning.  “Play-based learning” is not just an educational fad, but an idea supported by extensive scientific research.  In fact, focusing on academic skills too early can be detrimental.  

Play-based learning encompasses many forms of play with varying levels of adult involvement.  Danniels and Pyle (2018) recommend looking at play-based learning as a continuum, with child-directed activities (free play) at one end, play directed by both children and teachers in the middle (collaboratively designed play), and teacher-directed play (learning through games) at the other end.  Play-based learning is usually discussed in the school environment, but it is just as applicable in the home with parents.

To understand why play is essential, consider how the brain develops. Neuroscience educator Nathan Wallis talks about four stages of child brain development.  As noted by Barber (2018), Wallis explain that brain development from age 0 to 6 months focuses on the brain stem; age 6 months to 2 years on movement and coordination; age 18 months to 2 years on the limbic system, and emotions drive how children operate until age 7.  At age 7, the frontal cortex becomes the center of brain development. The stages of brain development build on each other.  According to Leisman, Mualem, and Mughrabi (2015), “Each one of our perceptual, cognitive, and emotional capabilities is built upon the scaffolding provided by early life experiences.” (p. 80)

In addition, the brain itself is highly integrated.  Different functions do not develop in isolation, but rather build on the development of other functions.  According to Cordes and Miller (Eds.) (n.d.),

“Neural pathways that primarily relate to physical and emotional experiences connect to the pathways that enable abstract thought, which are the last to fully mature.  In this way, different regions of the brain cooperate, enriching experience and learning. Children’s sensory development, their skill in movement, their capacity to pay attention and to communicate all directly influence and are influenced by their cognitive development.  And all of these ways of being human in the world together help to shape the physical development of the child’s brain in ways that cannot be neatly dissected from each other.” (p. 10)

One aspect of brain development that can be overlooked is emotions.  Young children are highly emotional, a trait that can be viewed just in light of childish mood swings.  However, the development of emotions is vital to child development and influences child development in all other areas.  According to the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2004),

“The circuits that are involved in the regulation of emotion are highly interactive with those that are associated with “executive functions” (such as planning, judgment, and decision-making),which are intimately involved in the development of problem-solving skills during the preschool years.  In terms of basic brain functioning, emotions support executive functions when they are well regulated but interfere with attention and decision-making when they are poorly controlled.” (p. 2)

The problem is that standard models of education do not reflect the integrated, holistic way that brains actually develop, instead emphasizing certain skills over others. According to Leisman, Mualem, and Mughrabi (2015),

“Most currently prevailing patterns of education are heavily biased towards left cerebral functioning and are antithetical to right cerebral functioning. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are all logical linear processes, and for most of us are fed into the brain through our right hand.  Most educational policies have tended to aggravate and prolong this one-sidedness. There is a kind of damping down of fantasy, imagination, clever guessing, and visualization in the interests of rote learning, reading, writing, and arithmetic.” (p. 80-81)

Standard learning also overlooks the role of emotions in making experiences memorable, enhancing the learning process.  Liu et al. (2017) concluded that “playful learning experiences characterized by joy, meaning, active engagement, iteration, and social interaction can offer multimodal inputs that stimulate interconnected networks involved in learning.” (p. 4)  Additionally, “the emotion of joy was associated with increased dopamine, which enhances the brain’s ability to process and retain information." (p. 6)  

Because of how the brain functions and develops, play is exactly what the brain needs to grow.  According to Cordes and Miller (Eds.) (n.d.), diverse scientific research “suggests that later intellectual development is rooted in rich childhood experiences that combine healthy relationships, physical engagement with the real world, and the exercise of imagination in self-generated play and in the arts.” (p. 8) According to the Center of Child Development at Harvard University (2016),

“It is vitally important that experiences provided in the earliest years are appropriate for the child’s stage of development. Encouraging self-directed, creative play is one important strategy for supporting that goal. Indeed, the key dimensions of play are precisely those that fuel the development of increasing capabilities as a child gets older by promoting a state of low anxiety and providing opportunities for novel experiences, active engagement, and learning from peers and adults.” (p. 9)

This type of quality play paves the way for that child’s future academic potential.  Cordes and Miller (Eds. (n.d.) observe, “The power to generate playfully one’s own images and to transform them in the mind’s eye, scientists now theorize, later becomes the capacity to play with challenging mathematical, scientific, and cultural concepts in ways that create new insights. (p. 9)

Patience pays off.  It is best to follow the natural model of child development by allowing children to develop at their natural pace, thereby building the foundation that will allow children to master academic subjects later.  According to Miller and Almon (2009), countries known for their high academic achievement (China, Japan, and Finland) all stress play in schools before the second grade. According to the Center on the Developing Child (2016), “If adults ask young children to master skills for which the necessary brain circuits have not yet been formed—such as programs that attempt to drill toddlers in reading or math facts—they will be wasting time and resources, and might even impair healthy brain development if they induce excessive stress in the child. (p. 9)

Instead of focusing on early cognitive attainment (numbers, letters, colors), it is more important to help children feel positive about themselves.  As noted by Barber (2018), Nathan Wallis offers the following advice, “We can very accurately predict future outcomes for young children—and it has nothing to do with the alphabet.  It all comes down to their disposition about themselves as a learner: what really matters for a child under seven is how clever he thinks he is.”  (p. 17) To do this, Wallis recommends child-led, free play.

With children spending a large amount of time at home, parents have the opportunity to ensure their young children are getting plenty of time to play, without worrying that this will place their children behind.  Investment in play is an investment in a child’s future success, not only academically, but in his or her development as a healthy human being.


Barber, K. (2018). Building Brains. Family Times, Winter2018. Retrieved 26 Sept. 2020 from

Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2016). From Best Practices to BreakthroughImpacts: A Science-Based Approach to Building a More Promising Future for Young Children and Families. Retrieved 29 Sept. 2020 from

Cordes, C., Miller, E. (Eds.). (N.D.) “Fool’s Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood.” Alliance for Childhood.  Retrieved 30 Sept. 2020 from

Danniels, E., and Pyle, A. (2018). Defining Play-based Learning. OISE University of Toronto, Canada, February 2018.  Retrieved 24 Sept. 2020 from 

Leisman, G., Mualem, R., and Mughrabi, S. (2015). The neurological development of the child with the educational enrichment in mind. Psicología Educativa, 21 (2), 79-96.  Retrieved  29 Sept. 2020 from

Liu, C., Solis, S. L., Jensen, H., Hopkins, E. J., Neale, D., Zosh, J. M., Hirsh-Pasek, K., and Whitebread, D. (2017). Neuroscience and learning through play: a review of the evidence (research summary). The LEGO Foundation, Denmark. Retrieved 24 Sept. 2020 from

Miller, E., Almon, J. (2009). Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School, Alliance for Childhood. Retrieved 29 Sept. 2020 from

National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2004).Children’s Emotional Development Is Built into the Architecture of Their Brains: Working Paper No. 2. Retrieved 29 Sept. 2020 from

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