There is plenty of evidence to show that children learn while playing. But how, exactly, does play affect learning? To gain a better understanding of the neuroscience behind playful learning, we can look at what happens in the brains of two people when they play together.
“We learn best when our brains are literally in sync with our social partners,” says Victoria Leong, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Nanyang Technological University and Affiliated Lecturer at Cambridge University’s Department of Psychology.
Leong has been studying parents and young children to learn more about the link between social interaction and learning. Her research group uses a method called dyadic EEG, which measures the brain activity of two people at the same time. These measurements shed light on the neuroscience of social interaction.
“Temporary brain synchronisation occurs when the behaviour of two people is coordinated.”
At the recent annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Leong shared some of the results of her group’s work.
In the group’s study of parent-child pairs, a parent, usually a mother, and a young infant wore EEG caps while playing together. Electrodes on the caps measured their brain signals simultaneously, which allowed the researchers to determine when parent and child were in a state of synchrony. This temporary brain synchronisation occurs when the behaviour of two people is coordinated.
Leong and her group found that this state of synchrony is an important factor in the learning that takes place while two people are playing together. “Playing with a partner presents opportunities to create a very high level of brain-to-brain synchronisation,” says Leong, “so play is a natural and optimal context for learning.”
This synchrony state is often achieved when the parent is guided by the child’s interests during play. Children are more engaged when they play with a parent rather than alone. Leong’s group noticed that the child typically chooses a toy, then the parent interacts with the child and the toy, and this in turn encourages the child to keep paying attention to the object and to learn from the interaction with the parent.
“Guided play in the classroom leads to brain synchronisation, which in turn helps children learn.”
This sort of interaction isn’t limited to parents and children. “The same principles apply on a larger scale,” says Leong. When students learn in a classroom setting, they form similar synchronisations with their teachers and peers. That might explain why playful learning approaches have been so successful: Guided play in the classroom leads to brain synchronisation, which in turn helps children learn.
Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Professor of Psychology at Temple University, has been studying the effects of play on learning for several years, and she sees Leong’s work as an important confirmation of the playful learning approach. “It offers, in a sense, a biological explanation for the behavioural data that we’ve been seeing for a very long time,” she says.
“The interaction between a child and a parent (or educator) can focus the child’s attention.”
Studies focused on learning outcomes have long demonstrated that children tend to learn more through guided play than through playing alone, but the dyadic EEG studies provide further evidence by showing how the interaction between a child and a parent (or educator) can focus the child’s attention.
So far, Leong’s research into dyadic pairs has been confined to the lab, but it may be time to branch out. “I would like to take this into a real playground or schoolyard scenario,” she says. “I think we’ve gathered enough knowledge now that we’re ready to take the next step and go beyond the lab environment.”