I want to share some writings from a 25-year-old coffee-stained journal, where I first wrote down the wisdom of years of research on the value of play-based education.
Every time I look through these writings, I get new ah-ha’s and even more certainty about the value of play in early childhood education.
So, first of all… here’s the BIG “play truth” I’m sharing in this article:
Play is the foundation for future academic success.
And my question for you is, Do you truly believe this?
If there is an ounce of doubt in your bones, parents and administrators will feel it.
So in this article I’ll guide you through some key pieces of brain science that back up the importance of play, so your confidence in play-based learning is solid.
I was very lucky that my first training in early childhood was in the 1990s as a Waldorf Kindergarten Teacher. Our training was grounded in the neuroscience. The research has been there for over 40 years now.
Here are three key pieces of that research, and my “ah-ha!” moments about each.
Ah-ha #1: Executive functioning affects future success.
Did you know that executive functioning skills are one of the predictors of future academic success? It’s true: the frontal lobe’s executive functioning directly impacts the development of the cognitive higher brain.
Executive functioning includes the development of:
- Following directions
- Working memory
- Focus and attention
- Regulation of emotions (behavior)
- Regulation of impulse – including motor driven – like running, moving
- Planning and setting intentions
These skills are fundamental for language development and literacy as well.
How do children develop these skills? Play! And specifically, socially interactive play. Children who do not get enough socially interactive play can develop symptoms of hyperactivity, impulsiveness, and poor attention skills.
As you may know, there is a blossoming of the brain that happens at the height of its development in early childhood. The frontal lobes begin developing in early childhood and do not complete until after age 21.
That’s why, with all of the skills that are dependent upon robust executive functioning, a child’s future academic success really does rest on how much PLAY they engage in during early childhood.
Ah-ha #2: Relationships are everything.
A child’s prefrontal cortex is developing and, as I’ve said, will not be fully developed until after 21 years. So asking a child to switch from play to another activity is a BIG DEAL. They do not have that skill fully developed.
So how does it develop naturally? Through the child’s innate desire to please you.
This is where our relationship with each child becomes very important. If a child is not responsive to you – there is a relationship gap, and the child will struggle with transitions because they’re struggling against their own brain function.
This is why it is important to first look to yourself and your personal attitude towards a child when behaviors arise. (And remember, for some children, attachment takes longer and so will compliance.)
Okay, now it gets even more interesting, given the typical teacher-led classroom.
Truth: if you MAKE the child do what you want, the prefrontal cortex isn’t being developed.
The child needs to make their own decision to follow your request, in order to strengthen this area of the brain. Effective neural pathways of cognitive flexibility are made by choice, not force.
This is why it’s SO important to acknowledge children’s perspective so they can be heard.
Listen to their reasoning. Provide problem-solving steps. Provide the space for a child to truly choose out of their own desire.
When you understand the way the frontal lobes are built – you will understand why we say relationship is the foundation to everything.
Ah-ha #3: Interest-seeking keeps children focused.
And finally — a key aspect of play that assists the development of the frontal lobes is the child’s interest-seeking system.
A child’s interests are what engage them fully in play. This is where the brain architecture for MOTIVATION and a directed sense of purpose are developed.
What is fascinating about this part of the prefrontal cortex is that it is the interest-seeking system that builds the child’s capacity to stay focused. It’s what helps sustain their attention to a specific task over a long period of time.
So, when children are allowed the time and space to follow their own interests (which is what happens in a play-based environment) — sustained attention is a natural outcome.
This flies in the face of what many people believe about a play-based learning environment. Administrators, parents, and others may worry that children will lose focus in such an environment, but the exact opposite is true.
Brain science doesn’t lie!
So, I have talked about three main ah ha’s:
Executive function develops through play. Research has shown that execution function is one of the most powerful indicators of future academic success. (Ahmed, Tang, Waters, and Davis-Kean, 2018)
Relationships are everything. When a child wants to please you, they will respond to directions, tasks, and transition with greater ease (with a nod to mirror neurons – we also need to model what we want to see).
Interest seeking keeps children focused. Children — when allowed the time and space to follow their interests in play — develop focus, attention and even planning and execution of play events.
Let’s take one more step and look at how a traditional teacher-directed environment can take a toll on these three facets of brain development:
- The teacher decides the activities. There is no self-selection of activity. The teacher chooses for the child, and everything has a predetermined outcome. Thus, the child’s interest-seeking system is not being activated. For many children, focus and attention can be challenging. Remember – this part of the brain is still developing. Interest is the special sauce of building executive functioning. Play provides this naturally!
- “Approval” is often driven by a child’s ability to conform to the needs of the teacher. This leaves some children feeling unseen, unheard and, quite frankly, lost. Behavioral issues can arise out of the lack of connection.
- Children are MADE to perform tasks or to transition to the next activity. As we’ve seen, if you MAKE a child do something, they are not going to develop cognitive flexibility.
Play is the fertilizer for the frontal lobes.
Relationships are the seeds of a harmonious learning environment.
And interest keeps children focused on their activities.
I hope I’ve made the case for you today that PLAY is what naturally and powerfully prepares children for future academic success and creates more harmony in the learning environment for everyone.
Bookmark this article to revisit as needed, and explore the references I’ve provided to bring more clarity and confidence to your teaching practice and the truths you hold about play-based learning.
Ahmed, S. F., Tang, S., Waters, N. E., & Davis-Kean, P. (2018) Executive Function and Academic Achievement: Longitudinal Relations from Early Childhood to Adolescence. Journal of Educational Psychology, 111(3), 446–458.
Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2011). Building the Brain’s “Air Traffic Control” System: How Early Experience Shape the Development of Executive Function, Working Paper 11.
Di Domenico, S. & Ryan, R. (2017) The Emerging Neuroscience of Intrinsic Motivation: A New Frontier in Self-Determination Research. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 24 March 2017.
Newman, L., Sivaratnam, C. & Komity, A. (2015). Attachment and early brain development – neuroprotective interventions in infant–caregiver therapy. Translational Developmental Psychiatry, Volume 3, Issue 1.