Playing makes us

We play to learn. Human beings play, animals play.

Games set up situations in which there is something to solve. And we solve that ‘something’ by using our wits, our imagination. Playing trains us for intellectual challenges.

Meaning, if we don’t play, we don’t learn.

We’ve found an article published by nprEd that describes what Jaak Panksepp discovered about our motives behind playing. Even if the article doesn’t arrive at any clear conclusions, it manages to refute some clichés —for instance, that we play in order to learn how to hunt.


Chalking is designed to develop our imagination. The shapes function as an incentive because they can be anything you imagine.

Why do mammals keep on playing? Panksepp observed that “When the rats are young, play appears to initiate lasting changes in areas of the brain used for thinking and processing social interactions.” According to the article, those changes involve switching certain genes on and off; play activates the whole neocortex and about one-third of the 1,200 genes that Panksepp measured “were significantly changed simply by having a half-hour of play.”

Panksepp’s theory states that play promotes substantial changes in the brain’s develoment; it doesn’t help to develop physical abilities but to build social brains that know how to interact with others in positive ways. “Play is what prepares a young brain for life, love and even schoolwork,” says Sergio Pellis, a researcher at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada. “Whether it’s rough-and-tumble play or two kids deciding to build a sand castle together,” he adds, “the kids themselves have to negotiate, well, what are we going to do in this game? What are the rules we are going to follow?” In this way, “the brain builds new circuits in the prefrontal cortex to help it navigate these complex social interactions.”

In short, play teaches us to live. Wonderful, isn’t it?

Reference: Scientists Say Child’s Play Helps Build A Better Brain, by Jon Hamilton. Published by nprEd on August 6, 2014.

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