Play and the science of learning

Most people don’t have too much problem with recognising that play is an essential part of children’s learning and development in the early years.  However, the idea of providing play and playful learning further into the primary age range can be met with fear and doubt as to its purpose and effectiveness.

The world of education is increasingly looking towards the science of learning for evidence as to how to best support learning and memory in schools. There still appears to be a gap in research directly linking play to learning, but there is a huge amount of evidence that highlights key features that make learning memorable. It isn’t hard to instantly see how play provides these features.

Paul Howard Jones, Professor of Neuroscience and Education at Bristol University, shares how three key processes are involved in the brain when learning:

  • Engagement
  • The building of knowledge
  • Consolidation of learning

These don't happen in a particular order; instead, these three processes work together when the brain is learning. But first and foremost, the brain needs to be engaged by whatever it is we're involved in, in order for long term learning to happen.


The human brain has evolved tendencies that bias our attention towards experiences that promise to be rewarding for us. This is why engagement is so important for learning, and dopamine plays a key role in this.

Dopamine is the brain's ‘gimme more!’ neurotransmitter. When we experience something that we find pleasurable and fulfilling, our brain’s built-in reward system is activated, and dopamine gets released into the prefrontal cortex. This sends signals to the brain that make us feel great.  We want to have that feeling again and again, and therefore we go back and repeat that experience again and again.

This is not so good when it comes to things like drugs and alcohol and gambling, but it is wonderful in terms of motivation for learning. Each time the brain is engaged in activity that stimulates it positively, it heightens our desire to do it again, and this repetition of experiences is what consolidates learning, and makes it memorable. It's how those connections are made strongly in the brain.

When the brain isn't engaged and motivated by what we're learning it makes it so much more difficult for that knowledge to stick because our reward system isn’t being activated.

You don’t need to become experts in neuroscience and dopamine! You are experts in teaching and learning. But if you understand what helps the reward system in the brain kick in, then that can really help your pedagogy in terms of providing the kinds of experiences that mean that children are really learning what we're wanting them to.

So, what makes learning engaging for a child? Well, most teachers spend a lot of time thinking about this, and it can definitely get harder as children leave the early years. Curriculum demands and coverage increase, along with expectations around outcomes. However, I have seen teachers perhaps overthink the engagement agenda and sometimes miss the point.  Engaging children in learning doesn’t mean the teacher has to put on a one person show and turn into a children’s entertainer! It also doesn’t mean they have to spend hours carefully curating Pinterest-perfect activities. This kind of approach to engagement can involve an awful lot of work on the behalf of the adult and very little on behalf of the learner and sometimes the learner’s needs and interests can accidentally end up coming second and the adult ends up burnt out. Teaching is an exhausting enough job anyway, let’s not make it any harder! My key motto has always been “Let the learner do most of the work, as the learning will then be more memorable”

What we really need to do is pay attention to our learners and to let them show us what engages them most; to notice when they are naturally showing high levels of involvement.  We need to reflect upon why this is and what is happening at that time. You will quickly see that a few key factors stand out that tell us what engages children. Here are just three of them:


When children are able to act independently and to make their own free choices, they obviously choose things that are of interest to them personally. They therefore become focused and usually return to the experience to repeat it, each time at a deeper level. This can be the simplest thing – for example, making their own book about a subject that interests them.


Our brains have evolved to tune into novelty. So we are naturally intrigued by something that seems new, or fascinating in some way. Children develop curiosity about the simplest of things if they are given the opportunity, encouragement and time to explore.  They are constantly asking questions of everything they come across and are involved in– though many of these won’t be out loud.

  • What is this?
  • What can I do with it?
  • Can I use it to make this?
  • How can I pretend to be…?


When it comes to engagement for learning, context is key. When learning is purposeful, enjoyable, experiential and has real meaning for children they will take it on and apply it in a variety of ways. For example, research around myelination and learning in the brain shows that where learning takes place in multisensory ways, as part of a social group, or by being physically active, the myelin coating (which acts to reinforce and stabilise newly formed neural connections) is thicker. This, in turn, leads to the speedy retention and retrieval of knowledge and skills. *

When we reflect upon these three factors in engagement, it isn’t hard to see that play is a natural way of encompassing all three and lots more. When we start to recognise this, then we stop viewing play as a luxury for learning, and we begin to see it as an absolute necessity.

*Wrapped to Adapt: Experience Dependant Myelination, C. Mount & M. Monje, Stanford University 2017
Long-term Learning Requires New Nerve Insulation, P. Farley, University of California 2020

Kym Scott

Hi I’m Kym, an established conference speaker, trainer and consultant in the field of early years education. I’ve been a passionate advocate of meaningful, authentic play experiences for 30 years now and have spent 20 of those years working in partnership with schools both in the UK and overseas, helping leaders grapple with effectively providing play based learning.