Imagine you could turn on a “light switch for learning” in a child’s brain – so they would be ready and eager to learn, naturally!

Does this exist?

The answer is yes and (drumroll, please…) I’ll show you how to flip the switch to ON with a simple, yet powerful, Play Truth:

A child’s interest in play prepares the brain for learning.

In this article, we are going to look at how a child’s full choice and interest in play impacts the brain and its readiness and ability to learn (and remember that learning).

First, a brief context that we’ll draw from as we expand upon the above Play Truth:

  1. The limbic system (our “primal” brain) is like a radar system. It will assess what’s happening and search for connection in order to feel safe and secure. When connection is established, it can relax and allow the brain to function fully.
  2. The limbic system is also the seat of emotions. When the limbic system interprets incoming sensory information, it is determining the emotional value of the information.

Okay, now let’s look at what this has to do with early childhood learning!

Imagine the following scenario:

A four-year-old child enters the classroom and sees new materials in the block center. This sensory information is interpreted as exciting and the child is motivated to go to the block center to play. The child begins to think about playing with the new materials and what they will be doing in the block center.

This positive sensory information sends a message of interest and excitement and directs behavior toward a purpose. It motivates children to be in action, and the capacity to think and learn is enhanced.

Now imagine this scenario:

A four-year-old child enters the classroom and sees there are worksheets set out and the teacher is asking everyone to be quiet and sit down to do the work. This sensory information is interpreted as a negative and the child is angry. The inner need to move and play is now no longer appropriate.

This negative sensory information turns the switch off. Which means thinking and motivation are turned off (or at least significantly turned down).

It isn’t important whether the child “should” be interested in an activity or not; the interpretation of sensory information is based on the child’s prior experiences and the current event combined. It’s just the brain, doing its job.

As we can see, the limbic system is the “light switch” for learning.

The emotions can either support or disrupt learning. How children perceive a situation is what causes their emotional response, which triggers specific neurotransmitters that then impact the potential for learning.

And since young children are wired emotionally for play, environments that discourage self-initiated play naturally disrupt the desire to learn.

Imagine a child is playing deeply in the dramatic play center. Rich conversations and pretend play are unfolding. Then, the teacher rings a little bell. “Time to move to your next center.” 

Or a child goes to play in the dramatic play center to pick up where she and her friends left off the day before. The teacher comes over and says, “This center is full. Pick somewhere else. Only 5 can be here.”

In both of these cases, there is a disruption in the positive, emotional connection to the classroom. It can turn off the switch. Some children bounce back and move on, but other children are left upset and with a need to play that cannot be met.

Even for the child who bounces back, the desire and capacity for learning has been dampened by the emotional response, however slight, that comes from having to drop an exciting activity and move on to something else.

The limbic system is also like a WiFi signal that broadcasts out and receives signals from other people.

A child’s biochemistry and moods are regulated by connection to the relationships in the classroom. Children need connection to their classmates more than anything else in the early childhood classroom. Remember, PLAY drives social bonding.

The relationship between social connection and learning works like this:

  • Children need play for social connection.
  • Social connection stimulates motivation.
  • Motivation drives interest.
  • Interest builds executive functioning of the brain.
  • Executive functioning sets the child up for success in academic learning.

Finally – let’s take a peek at the brain chemical behind motivation, and how it activates the desire to learn.

The chemical dopamine is a messenger between brain cells. The brain releases it when a child eats their favorite food or when they play in their favorite center, bringing feelings of satisfaction as part of the reward system. “Do this again!” is the basic message of dopamine.

So, a child returns to the block center every day to build and with her friends and pretend they are superheroes.

This is a result of the dopamine levels continuously signaling how enjoyable or worthwhile the current situation is in the reward feedback loop. The rewards in this case could be the social bonding and the satisfaction of the play environment.

Here’s where it gets really interesting, too: dopamine can also be thought of as the “save button” in the brain.

When dopamine is present during an event such as the block play, a child is more likely to remember it; when dopamine is absent, that child will not remember it.

In other words, when dopamine is present in the learning environment, the learning sticks.

This is obviously a strong case for a learning environment that stimulates motivation and reward in a child’s brain!

To sum up everything we’ve just learned in today’s Play Truth:

  • A child’s personally driven interests and wants in play begin an orchestra of amazingness that leads to motivation and learning:
  • Self-initiated play (which is intrinsically motivating), built from interest and curiosity, engages the limbic system  – turning it ON.
  • The positive emotions created in the limbic system drive a child to want to engage in an activity naturally.
  • The brain’s reward system releases dopamine and brings a deep satisfaction in the social connections and learning taking place.
  • The dopamine release sets up a chemical reward loop that has a child return to this play that brought such satisfaction.
  • This focused, repeated play builds the architecture of focus, attention, goal-setting and more!

That is a fascinating cycle of events, isn’t it?

As early childhood educators, it is so important that we make learning personally relevant to students so that it excites their emotions, makes them naturally driven to learn, and gives them those big “brain chemical” rewards that keep them coming back for more – and that make the learning permanent.

The most “personally relevant” curriculum we can give to our students is interest-driven, play-based learning.

A learning environment based on WONDER creates the foundation for the future of every single child in your care.


Bjorklund, David F. (2012). Children’s Thinking Cognitive Development and Individual Differences. Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.

Emotions Directly Influence Learning and Memory Processes, Neuroscience News, (2015).

Malaguzzi, L. (1993). For an education based on relationships. Young Children, 49, no. 3: 9–12.