Play is our favorite way of learning

Characteristics of Playful Learning Experiences


Connecting facts and ideas to familiar experiences

In order to move past memorization towards a more meaningful understanding, children must learn to put knowledge into real-life situations.  Meaningful learning connects new insights with what we already know and how we think.  During play children often experiment with what they have seen or noticed.  This allows them to make sense of the world around them.  When we connect to familiar ideas and experiences the brain network associated with insight, metacognition, analogical thinking, motivation, and reward is stimulated.  This means it’s more likely children will enjoy and remember the newly learned information.


Pleasure, enjoyment, motivation or thrill in an activity

 Joy is at the heart of play, from pretend play to building a tall tower just right.  Joy is both enjoying an experience for what it is, the momentary thrill, insight or surprise as well as experiencing success after overcoming a challenge or solving a difficult problem.  Joy is associated with increased dopamine levels in the brain’s reward system linked to memory, attention, mental shifting, and motivation.  Learning is fun when it’s joyful.


Understanding and communicating with others

Play is more fun with others.  When interacting with others during play and while learning students share their minds and in turn are able to understand others minds as well.  Learning to understand others and communicate one’s own thoughts leads to deeper learning and understanding.  Not only do we learn and enjoy interacting with others, it also helps to build stronger relationships.  Social interaction is fundamental to brain growth and development.  It activates brain networks related to empathy, which is critical for teaching and learning. 


Learning is hands-on and minds-on.

Active learning requires children’s minds to be “on” no matter whether their bodies are active or not. Students require choice to be able to engage fully and to have the most impact of learning. When students are able to immerse themselves in play and resist distraction the learning is especially powerful.  This self-directed, discovery-based method supports deeper conceptual understanding.  Neuroscience finds that active and engaged involvement increases brain activity related to decision-making, agency and flow, enhancing memory, and executive control skills.


Trying out and revising hypotheses

Playing in a safe space encourages exploration and experimentation, providing children agency to learn through trial and error.  Trying out possibilities, revising hypotheses, and discovering the next question leads to deeper learning.  When children have the chance to explore through trial and error they will spend more time and develop stronger critical thinking skills as well as scientific reasoning.  Iteration increasingly engages the brain networks related to flexible thinking, creativity, and being able to see other perspectives.