White Paper

Neuroscience and Learning through Play

In this white paper, our discussion of the neuroscience and biological literature on learning focuses on five characteristics used to define playful learning experiences, joyful, meaningful, actively engaging, iterative and socially interactive (see Zosh et al., 2017). From a neurobiological perspective, these characteristics can contribute to children’s ability to attend to, interpret, and learn from experiences.

The neuroscience literature in brief

Our current understanding of how each of the characteristics of playful experiences can support learning processes is primarily informed by research that concerns typically and atypically developing adults and animal models. Animal models give us some indication of possible mechanisms in the human brain, but it is worth noting that human and animal modelsare not perfect parallels. Additionally, adult studies provide insights into human cortical networks, but in brains that are less susceptible and vulnerable to environmental forces than those of children. With this in mind, we review the literature while in most cases leaving open considerations for the ways in which each characteristic may affect learning in children. It is also worth noting that while this research shows how the five characteristics may contribute to learning, few studies actually investigate the direct relationship between play and learning. This too remains an area open for future research.

In what follows, we first describe the interconnected nature of learning informing this review. From there, we summarise each of the five characteristics and how they connect with learning, as seen through a neuroscience lens.

Interconnected and holistic learning

As we dive into the five characteristics of playful experiences, it is important to view the various experiences embodying these characteristics in the larger context of brain development. Our understanding is not that different parts of the brain mature and dictate learning separately, but instead, that each region relies on ongoing and specific external input and connects robustly with other regions of the brain. Overall, the findings illustrate how the five characteristics of learning through play facilitate the development and activation of interconnected brain processes in growing children and support their capacity to learn.

Our understanding of learning in the context of experiences is holistic, meaning that it relates to the development of multiple domains rather than performance on a set of academic measures. Learning in the brain refers to the neural capacity to process and respond to different sensory, or multimodal, inputs, on both basic and complex levels. Inputs across multiple modalities are often helpful, if not essential, for the proper development of learning behaviors for children. Face-to-face interaction with a caregiver, for example, provides an infant with visual, auditory, language, and social-emotional inputs so that she may develop visual acuity, phoneme recognition, facial recognition, and secure emotional attachment (Fox, Levitt, & Nelson, 2010). These outcomes in turn support thedevelopment of language, cognitive control, and emotion regulation skills as she continues to grow.

Playful learning experiences characterised by joy, meaning, active engagement, iteration, and social interaction can offer multimodal inputs that stimulate interconnected networks involved in learning.

The quality of our experiences therefore affects our development from an early age. With this background in mind, our review explores how eachof the characteristics is related to these cognitive processes.

Resource Info


Published by

LEGO Foundation

Authored by

Claire Liu, S. Lynneth Solis, Hanne Jensen, Emily Hopkins, Dave Neale, Jennifer Zosh, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, & David Whitebread


Learning through Play
Research and Evidence