Studies Show Play and Brain Development Connected

There is a growing body of evidence and writing on the link between play, exercise and the healthy growth and development of our brain.

In sorting through relevant studies and articles, the following two links are worth highlighting for their simplicity, ease of reading and brevity. Gwen Dewar, PhD, is a biological anthropologist and founder of She wrote the following articles in 2008 about the benefits of play and exercise for children.


The Cognitive Benefits of Exercise for Children

The Cognitive Benefits of Play: Effects on the Learning Brain

How Yoga, Movement, and Active Play Support the Whole Child Model of Learning, Developmental Goals, and Curriculum Standards

whole child learningChildren are always learning. They learn from every interaction they have with the world and those interactions are with their whole body-mind-heart. The 3 basic areas of our brains, per the triune brain theory, work together to receive, process and integrate our experiences. So, learning is a sensory, kinesthetic, visual, auditory, reflective – whole child process.

Why is it important incorporate play and movement in the classroom?

Though for decades, the educational and scientific communities saw thinking and movement as separate, we now know definitively that the old “sit still” educational model is absolutely not how to support learning.   Quite the opposite, engaging the whole child through play and movement can be an effective cognitive strategy to (1) strengthen learning, (2) improve memory and retrieval, and (3) enhance learner motivation and morale. Why? because:

  • The more senses and areas of the brain you light up to introduce information – sight, song, movement, touch, – the richer, more elaborate, and more robust the retrieval ability.
  • The more movement/play – the less stress, which negatively impacts the ability to access higher order thinking and act rationally or intentionally and
  • Movement builds not just fitness but brain power – the growth of endurance, speed, and power in our muscles is literally reflected in the weight and density of our brain.
  • Mindful/ intentional movement (yoga, karate, gymnastics, sequences of movement) supports executive function which controls impulse control, planning, reasoning and short and long term memory.
  • Children who engage in daily physical education programs consistently show not just superior motor fitness, but better academic performance and a better attitude toward school


The Research

Research validates what we really already knew – the best way to learn is through a wholistic format, especially in early childhood!  Active, play inspired learning, has been shown to not only enhance well-being, but also improve memory, learning and behavior.  In fact, reading, writing and other cognitive skills are not possible without the mastery of specific motor skills.   So, weaving together story and movement, pretending to be animals as letters, memorizing using song and rhythm, strengthen the body, light up the brain for cognitive learning, engage emotional intelligence, and nurture creativity.  Transforming lessons into embodied, emotion and sensory filled explorations are the most powerful way to support optimal development of  self-awareness,  listening, direction following, focus, fine and gross motor skills, as well as critical thinking.

Rae Pica, educational expert and consultant, writes, “Children need to physically experience concepts to fully understand them, and their preferred modes of acquiring knowledge have always been, and still are, movement, play, and active learning.”  Why? because:

  • Play is the language of children and largely nature’s biological blueprint for learning
  • Play generates joy which in turn fuels growth and development
  • Play is multi-sensory and invites the whole child to show up – body, mind, imagination, heart
  • Play inspires creative thinking
  • Play pumps positive chemical messengers throughout the body that are necessary for brain growth and for building self-confidence.
  • Play puts children in a present, focused, receptive, and integrated state
  • Regular active play and stimulating physical education helps to balance energy and behavior naturally.
25 Play Quotes about the importance of PLAY

25 Play Quotes about the importance of PLAY

25 Play Quotes about the importance of play in children’s lives.

  1. “Play is the only way the highest intelligence of humankind can unfold.” -Joseph Chilton Pearce
  2. “It is paradoxical that many educators and parents still differentiate between a time for learning and a time for play without seeing the vital connection between them.” -Leo F. Buscaglia
  3. “Play is the exultation of the possible.” -Martin Buber
  4. “Play keeps us vital and alive. It gives us an enthusiasm for life that is irreplaceable. Without it, life just doesn’t taste good” -Lucia Capocchione
  5. “Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do. Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.” -Mark Twain
  6. “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” -George Bernard Shaw
  7. “Play is the beginning of knowledge.” -George Dorsey
  8. “Play is so integral to childhood that a child who does not have the opportunities to play is cut off from a major portion of childhood.” -Musselwhite
  9. “Necessity may be the mother of invention, but play is certainly the father.” -Roger von Oech
  10. “We are never more fully alive, more completely ourselves, or more deeply engrossed in anything than when we are playing.” -Charles Schaefer
  11. “It is a happy talent to know how to play.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson
  12. “Play is our brain’s favorite way of learning.” -Diane Ackerman
  13. “Almost all creativity involves purposeful play.” –  Abraham Maslow
  14. “Whoever wants to understand much must play much.” -Gottfried Benn
  15. “The true object of all human life is play.” -G. K. Chesterton
  16. “Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning.” -Mr. Rogers
  17. “Children need the freedom and time to play. Play is not a luxury. Play is a necessity.” -Kay Redfield Jamison
  18. “Do not keep children to their studies by compulsion but by play.” -Plato
  19. “The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct.” -Carl Jung
  20. “Children learn as they play. Most importantly, in play children learn how to learn.” -O. Fred Donaldson
  21. “The opposite of play is not work. It’s depression.” Brian Sutton-Smith
  22. “Those who play rarely become brittle in the face of stress or lose the healing capacity for humor.” -Stuart Brown, MD
  23. “In every real man a child is hidden that wants to play.” -Friedrich Nietzsche
  24. “If you want to be creative, stay in part a child, with the creativity and invention that characterizes children before they are deformed by adult society.” -Jean Piaget
  25. “The playing adult steps sideward into another reality; the playing child advances forward to new stages of mastery.” -Erik H. Erikson


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