The Power of Play


Playing with your child might not come easy to you but don’t worry if you need ideas look to The Games Lady for activities that will boost development. In this article, expert Barbara Sher explains why play is crucial to brain development in your young child. 


By Barbara Sher, The Games Lady 


Play shapes the brain, opens the imagination and invigorates the soul.

~Stuart Brown, M.D.


The brain

One of the fascinating facts about brain development is that as far as the brain is concerned, we are all born premature. Even though we are born with 100 billion nerve cells, they are not yet connected in networks. At birth, our organs and muscles are completely developed, although smaller than they will be, but our brain is only about one-fifth its final size.

The reason Mother Nature didn’t finish the job and give us a complete brain is simple: it would have required a much bigger head. I think she knew that we women would not want the newborn head to be any bigger than it is. The head is quite big enough. Thank you!

These 100 billion neurons (nerve cells) are like a mass of unconnected electrical wires and the forming of connections are the key tasks of early brain development. In the first decade of life as we experience the surrounding world, our brain will constantly strive to connect the wires that enable them to communicate with each other and store information. Each individual neuron differentiates to assume specialized roles and may be connected to as many as 15,000 other neurons, forming a network of neural pathways that is immensely complex.

The number and organization of these connections influence everything, from the ability to recognize letters to the maintenance of relationships. If these pathways are not used repeatedly, or often enough, they are eliminated. In this way, experience plays a crucial role in “wiring” a young child’s brain.

Pathways & connections 

In the beginning, we start making connections using our sensory system. We are, mostly, all born being able to see, smell, hear, taste and feel touch with every part of our skin. We are also able to be aware if our body movements (our kinesthetic/ motor sense).

Our experiences in life, then, start connecting pathways between these senses to make sense of our world. For example, the infant begins to put together the combination of a particular face, voice and smell, to mean mama or main caregiver. She also learns that when those sensations are combined with a particular taste, touch and body position, it means, “Time to nurse!” Another combination of sensations means dad or that rough older brother or the dog. So, little by little, experience-by-experience, pathways are formed that allow information to travel through the brain. The more pathways, the larger the brain.

You can see how the child’s experiences has enormous impact on how these nerve cells get connected or “wired” to each other. The new news, relatively hot off the neuroscience press, is that all experiences are not created equal. They do not all lay down new pathways. Some experiences don’t change the brain at all while others make big changes. The deciding factor of whether the experience is going to lead to a bigger brain is (drum roll, please)…….Joy!  Kids brains grow when engaged in playful engaging activities.

EnJOYing changes everything

If children are enJOYing the experience in an activity that engages them and excites their imagination, it supports healthy brain development and maximizes learning. There is a significant proven correlation between stimulating and joyful activities and healthy brain development. It makes sense: focused attention is a necessary ingredient for learning and children attend to an activity when it is interesting, fun and meaningful.

To quote Stuart Brown, M.D., psychiatrist, clinical researcher, and the founder of the National Institute for Play;

“Neuroscientists, developmental biologists, psychologists, social scientists, and researchers from every point of the scientific compass now know that play is a profound biological process. It shapes the brain.”

This is true for all children. Stanley Greenspan, M.D. author and noted authority on children with Autistic Spectrum Disorder emphasizes the importance of the “Floortime” approach where getting down and creatively playing on the floor with these children make significant difference in their brain growth and subsequent increases in skills.

The instant effect of joyful play on brain growth was shown dramatically when two groups of children had brain imaging done before and after activities. One group ‘s activities were TV watching, repetitive video games and the like. The other kids were engaged in activities that were exciting for them such as playing with a train and making up stories, with their adult, about the action taking place .The images of the brains of the children not particularly engaged showed no changes. But the brain images of the children who were enjoying and engaged in these multisensory creative activities showed immediate differences. New synaptic connections were actually visible in the brain scan!

In brain-speak, stimulating experiences activate certain neural synapses and this triggers growth processes that consolidate those connections. Rich experiences, in other words, really do produce rich brains.

The sad news is that synapses that are not activated progressively wither over time. Those 100 billion cells get pruned away through the “use it or lose it” principle.

Negative experiences hinder growth

Even worse, while positive experiences can help brighten a child’s future, negative experiences can do the opposite. Deprived of a positive, stimulating environment, a child’s brain suffers. Stressful experiences also shape a child’s developing brain. When children are faced with physical or emotional stress or trauma, one of the stress-related systems “turns on” by releasing the hormone cortisol. High levels of cortisol can cause brain cells to die and reduces the connections between the cells in certain areas of the brain.

Babies with strong, positive emotional bonds to their caregivers and enjoyable playful experiences in their lives show consistently lower levels of cortisol in their brains

Further proof is a study, completed at the Baylor College of Medicine, which showed that babies who had the chance to play often and who were held and touched often as infants, have larger brains with more neural pathways than children who received less playful attention and care when they were babies.

Playing is key

Play is essential to a child’s development and children like to play. It is what they do and how they learn.

This news about the connection between play and brain growth is especially meaningful to me. I’m an occupational therapist who has worked with children for over forty years, especially those with special needs. My therapy has always included a large amount of game playing. I’ve seen how drilling children on a fact doesn’t mean that they will remember it tomorrow. Instead, my experiences show me that when kids are having fun and enjoying themselves in the learning process, they retain the information.  Rather than point to the colors on a chart and naming them, for example, I lay down a slew of colored paper and ask the child to jump to all the ones that are red, then jump sideways to the ones that are green and backwards to the ones that are yellow. Looking for the matching color and having the thrill of jumping to it makes a connection between the visual and motor neurons, enhancing the cognitive understanding of colors.

Intertwined with the fun factor in learning facts is creative imagination and novelty. It’s easier to understand and remember the names of shapes when you throw a ball at the picture of a circle, which is a sun, and at the square that is also a house and at the triangle that is also a sailboat. Or, if you want a child to learn and remember a shape, such as a rectangle, ask him to run around the room and find everything that is a rectangle.

We parents are in the prime position to continue to enlarge our children’s brains through play. But, with work and other obligations and especially if we weren’t played with as children by our parents, it may feel that we don’t have the time or knowledge to add “playtime” to our over- burdened schedules.

This article hopes to show you that we don’t need a lot of time or special equipment and that we all have within us a sense of play. Look to my other articles on SEEK Magazine for suggestions that will feel do-able and can be done with a moment here, a moment there and with no more materials than a good mood.

Try out some of these ideas for a spontaneous game or let them inspire you to do others. Your children will think they are just having fun, but you’ll know they are making new synaptic connections!



previously published on in March 2010

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