Young children have playful brains, researcher finds
The Sector > Research > Understanding Children > Young children’s brains are inherently designed to be playful, author says

Young children’s brains are inherently designed to be playful, author says

by Freya Lucas

October 04, 2023

The young child’s brain is inherently designed to be playful and this is crucial for its development,according to author, early childhood expert and Director of Tomorrow’s Child Dr Jacqueline Harding.


In her new book, The Brain that Loves to Play, she challenges the traditional division between play and learning, emphasising the essential role of play in early years education and holistic child development.


The book aims to contribute to the ongoing discussion on redefining how adults care for, educate, and parent young children from birth to five years of age. 


Dr Harding discusses how the young child’s brain not only craves play but also thrives on it. Through rich sensory experiences and playful exploration, children forge new neural pathways, laying a solid foundation for future learning and growth.


Designed for play


“It seems that the young child’s body and brain are literally designed to be playful, and this is crucial for its development,” she says. “Children are naturally wired to play and any sustained deviation from this masterful design comes at a price.”


In her book she draws on the latest research in both neuroscience and child development.


Dr Harding illustrates the brain’s remarkable impact of immersive play on a young child’s brain, describing the way that a young child’s brain “jumps” and “lights up with joy” during play as the connections between neurons grow. 


Dr Harding affirms that these play-driven neural pathways, established before the age of six years, have a profound and lasting impact on a child’s future opportunities. Diverting from their innate inclination for play, she says, “could deprive them of vital learning experiences and opportunities for growth.”


Her book also challenges the historical belief that play is a mere recreational activity for children, advocating instead for a holistic approach that recognises play as a fundamental aspect of a child’s development.


“There is no doubt, according to all the latest research, that the brain loves to play –  and it is time that as adults we got on board with this notion too,” she adds.


Pandemic pressures


The book also discusses the challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic and its long-term impact on children’s mental health. Dr Harding recommends that play and early intervention should be prioritised to support young children who have lived through such unprecedented times.


“As we emerge from a pandemic which has significantly impacted all our lives, there can be no better place to begin than considering how we can rewrite the narrative through support in the early years,” she says.


Awareness is important


Dr Harding also emphasises that the book is not an exhaustive compilation of scientific findings but rather a practical guide for adults seeking to better understand the value of play in young children’s development. By demystifying complex terminology and presenting real-life case studies, she provides a resource that empowers individuals to integrate play and learning into their everyday interactions with children.


“It is my belief that a greater awareness of how we can support children is vital for all who care for young children,” she says.


The Brain that Loves to Play serves as an accessible overview of the profound influence of play on children’s brain growth and development. The book offers a wealth of knowledge and practical insights that will benefit practitioners, researchers, educators, parents, and anyone invested in the well-being of children, and may be accessed here

Download The Sector's new App!

ECEC news, jobs, events and more anytime, anywhere.

Download App on Apple App Store Button Download App on Google Play Store Button