This Is Your Brain on Play

The science behind developing a sound mind

Summer days in my neighborhood were filled with the usual trappings of childhood: riding bikes, eating Popsicles, and swimming in pools. But our street had something special—a gigantic oak tree with fat limbs. Each day, the gang spent hours scampering up and down that tree, daring each other to go higher than the day before. And while climbing, we wrote a story together, each of us adding details and plot twists as we reached for the next branch. I spent many a warm, dappled day in that tree, fingers on the rough bark and velveteen leaves, enjoying what breeze could be found, and feeling miles removed from earth.


I thought we were simply goofing around, but something important was happening during that long, lazy season. My brain was being shaped and stimulated in ways I’ve yet to fully understand. Researchers at the Child and Family Development Center at the University of Missouri–Kansas City explain, “Many of the fundamental tasks that children must achieve … can be most effectively learned through outdoor play. For example, when children move over, under, through, beside, and near objects and others, the child better grasps the meaning of these prepositions and geometr[ic] concepts.” Likewise, when kids are given the opportunity to physically demonstrate … descriptive words such as strong … or enormous, word comprehension is immediate and long lasting … [Play] creates more neural networks in the brain and throughout the body, making the entire body a tool for learning.”

Jaak Panskepp, a researcher at Washington State University [until his death in 2017], asserted that “play activates the whole neocortex”—the top layer of the cerebral hemispheres where higher-order brain functions are carried out. Just one half-hour of fun significantly changes about 400 genes in that magnificent, mysterious organ. But as interesting as these discoveries are, scientists are only creating complex terminology for something the Bible makes plain: We are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14).

We were not created for drudgery and adversity alone.

What this means is that we were not created for drudgery and adversity alone. Rather, our heavenly Father “richly supplies us with all things to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17). Christ came so we may have life “abundantly,” and play is one of the things that makes the abundant life possible (John 10:10). In fact, according to Thomas Hendricks, a sociology professor at Elon University, play is “a dynamic, ever-changing process that is filled with ambiguity and surprise.”

We convince ourselves that play is frivolous, profligate, perhaps even sinful, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. There’s a reason why our bodies and brains, both crafted by the hand of a loving God, flourish when exposed to play: We were made for it. Play is an essential way we understand the world and find our place in it. Through play, relationships are built, love is kindled, and trust is strengthened. When we playfully interact with our surroundings, we will find we’re more joyful and creative in all we do—even the everyday tasks that might otherwise threaten to wear us down.

Consider Marlow and Frances Cowan, the elderly couple who gained internet immortality a few years ago when they were filmed playing “Put On Your Old Gray Bonnet” on a piano in a Mayo Clinic atrium. The two pecked out the jaunty tune, bouncing to the beat, and lovingly patted each other on the backside when they changed parts—smiling and laughing like loons all the while. In a place where illness reigns and play could be dismissed as utterly absurd, these two lovebirds lifted the spirits of those present and brought joy to millions online. If that’s the end result of play, brother, count me in.

There’s a reason why our bodies and brains flourish when exposed to play: We were made for it.

Think back to the story I told you, the one describing the arboreal days of my youth. At the time, I thought climbing that tree accomplished nothing practical. It was simply a fun challenge that taught me to trust my body and to take appropriate risks. I gained an appreciation of God’s world by spending time in His creation. And as I added my bits to the narrative my friends and I created, my storytelling skills improved. Playing around with words and weaving sentences together was a joy, so I started keeping a journal, which I might never have done had I not been exposed to creative writing in such a positive way. All that seemingly insignificant and pointless gadding about led to something rather grand.

This isn’t to say life is all sunshine and gummy bears, mind you. Like every person who’s learning what it means to die to self, my life looks much like yours. It’s filled with a thousand and one undesirable things: doctor’s visits, meal prep, yard work, science projects, baseball practice, deadlines, and endless hours in traffic. But play reminds us that our days aren’t meant to be endured until something better comes along. Each one holds a share of mystery and mirth, free for the taking. Our tree-shinnying days may be behind us, but that doesn’t mean it can’t always be summertime in our souls.


Illustration by Lisk Feng

Related Topics:  Joy

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14 I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Wonderful are Your works, And my soul knows it very well.

17 Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy.

10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

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