The Importance of Play for Motor Learning

Albert Einstein - Bicycling Enthusiast
Waste of time?

I frequently make the claim on this blog that movement is best learned with an approach that incorporates an attitude of curiosity, exploration and play. Play is one of the central tools used in the Feldenkrais Method, which I think is an excellent way to train efficient movement. The purpose of this post is to define play and explain why it is central to any learning process, and discuss ways in which play can be blended with work to make it more effective.

Play defined

Play is one of those things that may be easier to recognize than define. Scientists studying play have come up with only vague and fuzzy definitions. In fact, a major play theorist named Johan Huizinga developed a definition that some refer to as the “magic circle” theory. That one creeps me out a little, sounds like Mr. Rogers. Stuart Brown, a play researcher who wrote a popular book on play, proposes the following definition. Play is an activity that:

  • is voluntary
  • has no obvious survival value or is apparently purposeless
  • is pleasurable or fun
  • creates a diminished sense of time and self consciousness
  • is improvisational

I like this definition because it helps distinguish play from work, which has almost the opposite set of qualities. Work is often done under the stress of need, has clear goals or purposes, and is usually not much fun. We often approach the practice of physical skills as a form of work, but there is great value in approaching practice in a more playful manner. Here is why.

Play is central to learning

Scientists studying play uniformly agree that it is an absolutely essential part of the learning process for all intelligent animals. The evidence for this conclusion comes from many sources. First, all intelligent animals play. The more intelligent the animal is, the more it plays. Chimps, dolphins, and dogs play more than snakes, turtles and bugs. Humans are the smartest animals and play the most. Intelligent animals deprived of normal play do not develop into normal adults. Rats grow up aggressive, and have poor social skills. The same is true of humans – Brown’s research shows that violent Texas inmates had very distinctly limited positive experiences with play as children. Dogs deprived of play will show severe learning problems as adults and will walk into open flames. Ouch.

Further, all animals engage in the most play during the times of their lives when the educational demands are the highest. This may strike us as counterintuitive if we assume that play is a diversion from more productive processes like working. However, in the times of life when an animal needs to get the most done in terms of learning – when it has to master physical skills necessary for hunting, or learn social skills necessary for mating and group membership – these are the exact times when the animal naturally engages in the most play. Animals cannot survive if they fail to develop essential life skills, and evolution has left the job of teaching these crucial skills to  …. play. What this means is that play is the best solution to difficult education problems that evolution has found. And, as a wise man once said, evolution is cleverer than you are. It produces solutions to problems that are so elegant, powerful and efficient that they make the best efforts of our best scientists look like child’s play. (That’s a pun!) So if evolution thinks that play is a good solution to learning, we should listen. Here are some of the ways that play helps foster learning.

A stress free environment is necessary for optimal learning

Play is by definition fun and voluntary, so animals only play when they are not under any form of survival stress. Animals brought into a new environment will generally not start playing until they scope out the area pretty well and make sure the coast is clear. (I have seen my four year old do this at playgrounds repeatedly.) Learning is essentially an investment in the future, and brains are programmed to make that investment only when things are looking pretty squared away in the present. By contrast, if you are under some form of stress that threatens survival, the brain is not primed to learn or play.

As a practical matter, this means that if you approach your practice for a sport or other activity with an overly serious mindset that creates stress, you are activating a brain pattern that is not conducive to learning. If you make sure your practice is fun and stress free, you have a better chance to make it productive. In other words if you are not feeling ready to play, you are probably not really ready to learn either. This is why the Feldenkrais Method incorporates many moves that are fun, like rolling, crawling, seeing if you can interlace all your toes together like they were hands, etc. It also has students move as slowly and carefully as possible to minimize pain, discomfort and stress.

Exploration and improvisation improve learning

Play is by definition more exploratory and open ended than work, which is more defined and goal directed. An amazing example of how curious exploration and playfulness can speed learning is shown by the “hole in the wall experiment.” A prominent Indian physicist was curious what would happen when he placed a computer with high speed internet access imbedded in a concrete wall in one of the poorest slums of India. The computer attracted the most attention from street kids aged 6-12 who had never seen such an object before and were curious about what it was. Within days, and with no instruction whatsoever, the kids were playing games and surfing the internet. In short, they developed what most adults consider computer literacy (and what my mom has not yet developed even after attending classes) almost immediately just through play and exploration. I would imagine that these kids would not have learned anywhere near as quickly if they were forced to work at learning computer skills in a typical classroom setting.

Unfortunately, we often approach the practice of physical skills as a form of work, but as the above example shows, there is great value in approaching practice in a more playful manner. An improvisational approach to practicing physical skills encourages movements or techniques that are novel or unusual, which has several benefits. First, novel stimulus is more likely to get the brain’s attention and excite more neural activity in more areas of the brain. In other words, the stage is set for neural growth and new connections, which is what learning is all about.

Second, novel movement means new proprioceptive information for the body maps. One of the ways that motor learning occurs is by comparing the different outcomes related to different movement methods and then deciding which is most efficient. More ways to move means more comparisons equals more ways to learn. This is why we learn from mistakes. The major point here is that trying something in a non-habitual way can produce learning even if the new method is not as efficient as the habitual way.

Here’s an example to illustrate. Golfers are always fiddling with their equipment, tweaking their stance, swing, grip, posture, etc. Even though these little tweaks rarely lead to permanent changes in technique, I believe they are an important part of the learning process. Let’s say the golfer adjusts his grip so that it is rotated slightly to the right of the habitual place. If he has been playing golf for a while, chances are the new grip will be slightly less efficient, because he has already optimized the best place for his hands. However, swinging the club with the new grip will cause all sorts of other minor adjustments in swing technique, which provide his brain with a massive amount of new information about swing mechanics. This is a good thing. Perhaps there is something about the new grip that encourages a slightly different hip motion, which feels more powerful and controlled. Perhaps his brain remembers the new hip action even when he returns to the old grip, and improvement results. Perhaps the golfer considers the grip change a failed experiment, a fun but wasteful diversion from the real work of getting better at golf. Maybe he doesn’t even realize that this little diversion was the most productive thing he did at the driving range that day.

The point here is that play can cause learning in a roundabout or unpredictable fashion. The inherent unpredictability of play is a way to guard against getting in ruts caused by habits that develop as a result of being too focused on the goal and not attentive enough to the creative process. One of the paradoxes of play is that goals are sometimes more easily achieved by forgetting the goal for a while. Yes, it sounds Zen.

This is why the Feldenkrais Method uses novel interesting movements that you would never use in everyday life – such as rolling from side to side while holding the feet. This unusual constraint is impractical in life, but it can inspire new movement patterns that are very practical and would not be otherwise be discovered.

Play has global benefits

We often think of play as a primitive or unsophisticated form of practice or rehearsal for later activities. So, the lion cub who enjoys stalking and pouncing and wrestling with her sisters is practicing for the hunt. There is some truth to this, but it turns out that lions who are deprived of rough and tumble play in their youth are able to hunt just fine – what they lack are appropriate social interactions with other lions. Thus, their play is actually more of a lesson in social skills than physical skills. This is an example of the fact that play involves many different brain functions, and has the potential to provide a wide range of effects.

Further, play also seems to have a more global effect on the brain than work. For example, rats who are required to find their way through a maze (not play) experience neural growth in the one specific area of the brain responsible for this task. By contrast, rats placed in an enhanced play environment experience global brain benefits – they have thicker cortexes. Play researcher Stephen Siva says that “play just lights everything up.” What this means is that play excites many different parts of the brain – more connections are made, more neural growth occurs, and learning occurs faster and with more permanence. Play activates brain derived neurotrophic factor which stimulates nerve growth. This is why longer recess correlates with better performance at school.

Stuart Brown compares play to REM sleep in its ability to provide global benefits to the entire brain. Brown thinks that both play and sleep are an integral part of a process of “wiring the brain up” into its most efficient organization. Brown speculates that this may happen through a process of neural Darwinism, as described by Gerald Edelman. The idea is that in both play and REM sleep, the brain spontaneously engages in a wide variety of creative and almost random patterns, which are tested and then discarded according to a process of natural selection, by which only the most efficient and organized patterns persist. So, just as evolution is an undirected process built on randomness that ultimately results in amazingly intricate designs through natural selection, play is a similarly undirected and unmanaged process that ultimately results in a highly organized brain.

What to do

So what do we do with this information? The most obvious thing is to try to make work (any kind of work really) more fun. This will put your brain in the right frame of mind to learn, and make creative connections, avoid habitual roadblocks etc. Put another way, if you are not ready to have fun, you are probably not ready to learn much.

Second, realize that not all practice has to be intensely focused on the exact goal. Detours from the main road can somehow paradoxically lead to a quicker arrival time. Here are some examples. If you are playing tennis, spend some time learning some new ways to spin your racquet, or playing with a two handed forehand. If you are a soccer player, practice your juggling skills with a tennis ball. If you are a basketball player, practice dribbling two balls at once. (Of course only do these things if you find them fun.) You might object that these skills will never be used on the field and seem like a potential waste of time. However, ask any professional athlete to show you some tricks, and they will display a vast array of bizarre skills they would never use on the field in a million years. For example, check out Ronaldhino juggling or Tiger hitting a golf ball out of the air. The best will spend considerable time playfully exploring their games, and so should you.

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24 Responses to “The Importance of Play for Motor Learning”

  1. Todd, insightful post. Play really does seem to trigger an elevated performance state of mind – an interesting irony as you’ve shared. A friend found this article and shared it with me, am glad she did!


  2. This was truly and enjoyable read.
    Well done Todd!

  3. Todd,

    Wonderful essay. I don’t think that paly and fun are mutually inclusive however. Here’s a short thread about the distinctions

    • Thanks Barrett,

      Interesting thoughts on the play fun distinction. I will think about that and maybe write something on a follow up post. It reminds me that in the last section of my feldenkrais training they brought out a whoopie cushion to stimulate an atmosphere of play. I thought there was something deeply wrong about that.

  4. We work with kids all the time, starting as young as 4 years old – after watching them grow up you can see that the kids that had more fun when they started out are now the better players. I think our job as teachers is to create the environment for learning and let the kids explore.

  5. Hello this subject is hugely interesting. Keep it going teammate !


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