Pretend Play & Brain Growth


What is more wonderful than watching four year olds at play? The imaginative wonder and creativity present is unparalleled to any other time in life.

On this particular day the task involved planning to build a train and take a ride. The classroom was a place of intention, the work of socio-dramatic play. 

There was much work to be done:  moving chairs, arranging items, gathering needed materials, planning the route, assigning roles and jobs, making tickets and problem solving along the way.

In the end, the 15-car train was packed with animals for a stop at the zoo, food, a “sleeping car” with pillows, enough room for all, and was headed for Disney World. A few stops were made to switch conductors and engineers and to walk the animals of course!

The scenario seems simple: children playing imaginatively. Yet we now know that this work of play is more important than we ever imagined.

Relationships and Play Greatly Impact Brain Growth

There is groundbreaking current research on brain development that not only affirms what we already know regarding early development, but also offers us more detail as to how and when certain growth and development occurs. 

We now know that a child’s brain is growing at the most rapid rate and in the most important ways during the first five years of life. This is a critical time for building the foundation for future learning. Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child states that, “The early years are the most active period for establishing neural connections, but new connections can form throughout life and unused connections continue to be pruned. More importantly, the connections that form early provide either a strong or weak foundation for the connections that form later.”

Further, we know that certain areas of the brain are responsible for specific functions, and researchers and policymakers alike agree that the prefrontal cortex responsible for executive function skills best predict academic and lifelong success. Executive function skills include self-regulation, working memory and cognitive flexibility. Children are not born with these skills; instead they are developed over time through relationships and their environment.  The window of greatest potential for growth in this area is ages three to five.

“Adults can facilitate the development of a child’s executive function skills by establishing routines, modeling social behavior, and creating and maintaining supportive, reliable relationships. It is also important for children to exercise their developing skills through activities that foster creative play and social connection, teach them how to cope with stress, involve vigorous exercise, and over time, provide opportunities for directing their own actions with decreasing adult supervision.”

In a recent publication, “Zero to Three” echoes this concept urging practitioners working with young children to engage the child by “narrating the child’s ongoing experience of discovery and problem solving” as well as “engaging them in imitative play.” Further research studies by economist and Nobel Prize winner James Heckman show that there is a significant return on investment when high-quality zero-to-five programs are implemented. In short, investment in the right kind of programs and environments during the early years would change lives and our economy for the better.

We now know more than ever the value these appropriate experiences and interactions have on the developing child and their brain. We must ensure our programs and classrooms are providing what our young learners need: secure relationships, opportunities for rich interactions and problem solving through play, and modeling creative language should be integral.

Brains Grow When Bodies Move

Simple observation lets us know that young children need to move, especially in ways that involve gross motor skills and include the outdoors, for extended periods of time and in a variety of ways. This is necessary for physical, vestibular, visual and cognitive growth. Physical growth we think of naturally, but the latter three may not be as obvious.

Brain-based learning expert Eric Jensen wrote “brain research confirms that physical activity can actually enhance the learning process” and describes six good reasons to have students move more to learn more:  circulation, episodic encoding, a break from learning, system maturation, good chemicals, avoiding negatives of too much sitting.  We also can add, “involves vigorous exercise” to the list of necessary functions for developing executive function skills. Playing outdoors and general physical activity promotes physical health, critical thinking, problem solving, risk assessment, conflict resolution, creativity and cooperation.

When we expect our young learners to sit still for long periods of time, especially when direct instruction is the primary method, we are denying them the necessary resources for overall growth. In other words, expecting young children to learn in a sedentary environment, which prevents their brain from growing to its full potential can lead to behavioral problems and interrupt their pursuit of academic success.

Developmentally Appropriate Curriculum and PLAY Produce Stronger Learners and Better Scores

Deborah J. Leong and Elena Bodrova are researchers and child experts who have conducted studies on the long-term effects of play-based learning. Their studies have shown higher standardized test scores from children in classrooms with their Vygotskian play-based approach versus a traditional classroom. This research suggests that the innovative teaching techniques used in the project classrooms produced gains in children’s early literacy development beyond what was accomplished by the teachers in non-project classrooms.” Pushing content in developmentally inappropriate environments has proven to produce struggling students, lack of progress, frustrated instructors, and more frequent referrals. This research-based/play-based approach is an example of investment in the “best” practices of learning which produce improved long-range results. Not just in increased standardized test scores, but in overall success in student productivity, love of learning and development of self-regulation skills. Leong states the following regarding their methods: “Teaching children to play has to be as intentional and systematic as teaching literacy or math and at the same time must take a form very different from adult-initiated practices often used to teach these content-related skills.” We can make these important and life-changing practices in our educational system by simply putting this research into practice.

This allows the teacher to adapt curriculum more efficiently for each child/classroom, thus creating stronger and more effective learning environments. Play based curriculum produces a pattern of learning instead of just acquisition of knowledge. Conversely, conventional testing and checklists often used in the primary grades produce only specific or limited information.

Children can acquire facts and information to pass a “test” but the greater goal is to discover what a child has learned, what they have internalized so as to apply and progress into more complex knowledge. 


Learning and brain growth begins much earlier than we thought. The early years are crucial for foundational brain development, which directly correlates to acquisition of certain skills. Brain research today has confirmed this for all of us working with young children. It turns out building a train, with the right relationship and environment in place, is much more important than we imagined.

Erin Akers is an early educator, elementary educator, curriculum development specialist, and child advocate. She is the Director of Education and Development at the Gesell Institute of Child Development. She has a passion for developmentally appropriate curriculum and instruction, and consults with schools and organizations nationwide. Akers also conducts educational training for educators and parents across the country.The Gesell Institute of Child Development is a 501(c) 3 non-profit organization that, since 1950, has been a leader in researching and teaching about how young children learn and grow. Gesell programs, publications, and research efforts help parents, educators, psychologists, social workers, and medical professionals understand the ages and stages of childhood. Understanding the stages of growth and development, and using this knowledge to interpret behaviors is essential to meeting the unique learning needs of young children in all settings.

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