Play and the Brain: How it Changes Our Brain and Helps Us Develop

The neuroscience of play.

Executive functioning skills
Growth mindset
Unstructured play
Natural play

The Neuroscience of Play: How It Affects Our Brain Chemistry

The neuroscience of play is an area of research that has been gaining traction in recent years. It has become increasingly clear that playing can have a profound effect on our brain chemistry, influencing the release of hormones and neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins.

These chemicals are responsible for regulating moods and emotions, helping us to feel relaxed or energized depending on the situation.


For example, when we engage in playful activities with others we experience increased levels of oxytocin which helps us to form strong social bonds with those around us. Similarly, physical activity during play releases endorphins which can reduce stress levels.

Play also affects our cognitive functioning by stimulating neural pathways associated with learning and memory formation. Through repetition and practice during games like chess or basketball players develop skills such as problem-solving strategies or hand-eye coordination which help them perform better in other areas of life too.

Additionally, engaging in creative activities like drawing or music can help stimulate creativity by encouraging divergent thinking processes within the brain’s prefrontal cortex region – an area associated with higher order thinking skills such as planning ahead and decision making.

Play and Brain Plasticity: How It Shapes Our Neural Connections

Play is an important factor in the development of our brains, as it helps to shape and strengthen neural connections. Through play, we can learn new skills and develop cognitive abilities such as problem-solving, memory formation, and creative thinking.


Brain plasticity occurs when neurons form new pathways or modify existing ones in response to stimuli from the environment. Essentially, your brain has the ability to re-wire itself, and playing games is a great way to reinforce those neural pathways.

For example, playing a game like chess requires us to think strategically about how each move will affect future outcomes – this type of complex decision making strengthens neural pathways associated with executive functioning skills such as planning ahead and goal setting.

Similarly, physical activities like running or dancing require coordination between different parts of the body which help build motor control networks within the brain’s cerebellum region. By engaging in playful activities on a regular basis we can continue to grow these neural connections throughout our lives while also improving our overall mental health and wellbeing.

Play and Cognitive Development: Building Critical Thinking Skills

Play and cognitive development are intricately linked, with play playing a crucial role in building critical thinking skills. When children engage in play, they are actively making conscious choices, experimenting with different scenarios and outcomes, and learning to think logically and creatively.

This kind of playfulness is reminiscent of the philosophy of Plato, who believed that play was an essential component of education and personal growth.

Plato believed that activities that sparked enthusiasm were ideal for learning. He also thought that through play, adults could discover new truths and explore ideas. Plato famously said, “You learn more about a person in an hour of play than in a lifetime of conversation.”

Play is a powerful tool for promoting cognitive development and helping children to develop the critical thinking skills that will serve them well throughout their lives. Whether it is through imaginative play, games, or simply exploring the world around them, children have the opportunity to learn, grow, and develop their cognitive abilities through play.

Learning through play vs. learning through rote. how play unlocks a learning superpower

Play is a powerful tool for learning, and it can be used to unlock our natural superpower of creativity. Unlike rote memorization or traditional teaching methods, play encourages us to explore the world around us in an open-ended way.

It allows us to make mistakes without fear of failure and encourages divergent thinking processes that help develop problem-solving skills.

Through play, we can learn how to think strategically and plan ahead for future outcomes – something that cannot be achieved through rote memorization alone.

Your brain is like a muscle. The more you train it, the better it gets. When you play, you use multiple areas of your brain, creating a powerhouse environment of learning and information retention. Play also introduces the chance of failure, which is ideal for learning.

Rote memorization activates the same neural pathways in a risk-free way which will limit your learning capabilities. Research also shows that our ability to memorize information will decrease over time, but information learned through play is often unconscious.

Play is an important factor in developing a growth mindset, which is the belief that our abilities and intelligence can be developed through effort and practice.

This type of thinking encourages us to take risks, try new things, and learn from our mistakes – all essential components for success in life. Through play, we can explore different strategies without fear of failure or judgment, allowing us to develop problem-solving skills while also building resilience.

The link between play and a growth mindset has been studied extensively by researchers such as Carol Dweck, who found that children with a fixed mindset were more likely to give up when faced with challenging tasks compared to those with a growth mindset.

Play provides an opportunity for experiential learning, something that cannot be achieved through traditional teaching methods alone – helping us build confidence in ourselves as well as the ability to think strategically about future outcomes.

The Role of Play in Early Childhood Development

Play is an essential part of early childhood development, providing children with the opportunity to explore their environment and develop physical, cognitive, and social skills.


Through play, children can learn how to interact with others in a safe space while also developing problem-solving strategies. It encourages divergent thinking processes that help them think creatively about different solutions to problems. Play also helps build language skills by introducing new words and concepts and building vocabulary through repetition.

Physical activities such as running or climbing provide opportunities for developing motor control networks within the brain’s cerebellum region, which are important for coordination and balance. Playing games together can also be a great way for families to bond while teaching children valuable lessons about cooperation and teamwork.

The Importance of Unstructured Play for Creativity and Imagination

Unstructured play is an important part of human development, allowing us to explore our environment and express ourselves in creative ways. Unstructured play is child-directed, child-led, and has no specific purpose or outcome.


It encourages divergent thinking processes that help children to think outside the box and come up with innovative solutions to problems. Unstructured play also helps build language skills and promotes autonomous decision-making and risk assessment.

Unstructured play is just as valuable for adults as it is for children. It provides an opportunity for exploration without fear of failure or judgement, helping us build confidence and the ability to think strategically.

It stimulates neural pathways associated with learning and memory formation and helps develop lateral thinking skills. Engaging in playful activities has been linked to improved mental health outcomes such as increased self-esteem, better coping strategies, enhanced resilience, creativity, and imagination

The Difference Between Natural Play and Engineered Play


The distinction between natural play and engineered play is an important one. Natural play is unstructured and open-ended, allowing children to experiment and explore their surroundings without the constraints of rules and boundaries.

This type of play fosters creativity and imagination and allows children to develop their own goals and objectives.

On the other hand, engineered play refers to play that is structured and goal-oriented, often guided by adult-imposed rules and boundaries.

This type of play is more focused on logic and problem-solving and is often seen in educational settings, where children are taught specific skills through games and other activities.

While both natural and engineered play have their place in a child’s development, it is important to ensure that children have access to a balance of both types of play. Both types of play are essential for a well-rounded and comprehensive approach to development.

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