The Right Brain Develops First ~ Why Play is the Foundation for Academic Learning

The Right Brain Develops First ~ Why Play is the Foundation for Academic Learning

Photo credit: Thank you to Emek of Emek Studios

Did you know that the right brain develops first? It does so by the time children are 3-4 years of age. The left brain, on the other hand, doesn’t fully come online until children are approximately seven years old; hence the first seven years being recognized as such a critical period in child development.

“Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.” ~ Albert Einstein

The left brain’s functionality is one of language, numeracy, literacy, analysis and time. It is the logical, calculating, planning, busy-bee part of us that keeps us anchored in the pragmatic world, and in past and future. The right brain, on the other hand, is responsible for empathy, intuition, imagination and creativity. It is where we wonder, dream, connect and come alive. Through the right brain we dwell in the space of no-time, in being absolutely present. While the left brain is more interested in outcomes or product, the right brain cares much more about process—the journey is what matters, not the destination. 

But there is one more vital piece to understand: The right brain connects us to our boundless sense of being. Being is primary; hence the right brain developing first; hence, human being, not human doing. The left brain is far more interested in doing. Young right-brain dominant children, by contrast, are quite content being.

Understanding this we can better appreciate why play is so important in child learning and development, and why we need to be extra careful with the amount and timing of academic agendas created for children; with how much we emphasize product—what kids have accomplished at school—versus process—who they are becoming and what they feel in their explorations. That the right brain develops first is pertinent information for those in the field of education, as well as parents, regarding what is developmentally appropriate. Pushing literacy and numeracy on children before age seven may just be harmful to their little, developing brains. Without the capacity to use their academic minds in the ways that are being asked can cause children to gain what’s called “learned stupidity.” They believe themselves to be incapable and lose their natural desire to learn.

The push for academia on children is a symptom of a society that is left brain dominant, or forgetful of the wonderful playground that is the right brain. It’s an indicator that we feel safer within the literalness, control and certainty of the left brain, far more than in the unquantifiable and mysterious nature the right brain connects us to.

You cannot measure the qualitative aspects of imagination, empathy and intuition; but, of course, you can measure the aforementioned practical detail-oriented functions associated with the left brain. Yet the more we push those things that can be measured onto children, the more they will grow up feeling like they don’t measure up!

Let’s remember that life is less about the tools the left brain excels in and what we accomplish in this world. Rather, life is about being present and connecting with those you love, or those you don’t even know as children do so freely:

“Walking to the library this morning, I passed on the sidewalk a little child, maybe two years old and his mother”, wrote a friend of mine. “As I neared, the child looked at me, his eyes so alive and present, and when I said ‘Hi’, he stooped and picked up a soggy leaf from the ground and handed it to me. Oh, the abundance and beauty of this world!”

This is the gift of the right brain. While the left brain sunders life into pieces, the right brain unites. This is why babies sense no distinction between themselves and their environment. All is one!

These wise little teachers remind us, courtesy of their right brain, that life is about enjoying the little things, about enchantment and surprise; it’s about being present with another, offering them your gentle ear, hearing between the lines, not just what is being said, which is what logic grasps. With the help of the right brain we touch the hidden places in our heart and in the hearts of others, those secret dimensions that give meaning to life.

The right brain is indeed the playground, or at least, it connects us to it. Let children dwell in this most natural state through their unstructured play, and all its derivatives such as doodling, curiosity, wonder and imagination. People who have a healthy right brain can better use their left brain tools in positive ways. That is the purpose of the left-logical brain: to serve the right brain—doing serves being. Being is the soil from which all our plans, details and actions must flower if we are to experience personal fulfillment and truly contribute to the world.

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” ~ Albert Einstein

Here is a TED Talk guaranteed to provide inspiration and more practical knowledge on the matter. Enjoy!

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Check out Vince’s book: Let the Fire Burn ~ Nurturing the Creative Spirit of Children, A Children’s Book for Adults

Posted in Most Popular, Play, Education and tagged , , , , .

58 Comments

  1. Terrific!!! Totally explains our approach in Waldorf education’s early childhood program. Thank you for so clearly articulating the foundations of our philosophy and affirming how important protecting childhood is.

  2. Wonderful article. It’s soooo refreshing to see published what I, as an RN AND MOM, have felt all along. My “kids” are 35, 31 and 29.
    And we ALL need time and space to relax, let our brains stretch, learn new, exciting things.
    Thank you for sharing this amazing research. ‼️

    • You got it, Wanda, thanks for reading, and it’s great to hear you have been trusting your intuition along the way. Play on! 🙂

  3. Vince, totally love the concept and direction this piece takes and want more teachers & parents to “buy in.” Can you direct me to your original sources for the brain development bits? Thanks.

    • Hi Wendy, the sources are in the first sentence as links to research and articles. Let me know if you cannot find them. Cheers! 🙂

  4. Wow, thank you. Question? Although play is very important for children what about adults? Thanks, I play with my grandkids and kids, also friends. Tks, being a kid again has more experience and value than I realized.

    • Hi Arnell, thank you for sharing that. It’s wonderful to hear that you value play and are sharing your playful spirit with your grandkids. I’ve written a lot about play for kids, but my message is that it is equally important for adults. You’ll find many articles about play on my website. Here’s a simple list of 14 Play Values for you to read. Enjoy! 🙂

    • Hi Ellen, I don’t give out printable versions. Please send the link to them and they can read it from my website. Cheers!

        • It’s not advertising, it’s just emailing the link to the article to the parents. If you don’t have a computer, tell them to Google the article name and they can read it from home on their own computer. I do not offer printable formats; and because the article is copyright protected, any reproduction must be first passed by me.

    • I play with an 11 year old kid with autism every day.We are both having such fun and I can even see a difference in myself.Playing develops the brain,no matter which age.

  5. Beautifully explained as to why school and academics should not be pushed so early in life. Wish the educators and parents of the current world listen to your words. Otherwise as a pediatric therapist I see children being suffocated with structured activities and no time for free play:(

  6. Am a retired pEdiatrician butvery curious . I ove what am reading and maybe help some
    Teachers or my sychiatrist husband Whois in the school board in our cuunty. Araceli

  7. I love these ideas. How do we make change in the bueracracy of our educational systems, the large majority of which is so focused on test scores and having a child reading by the end of kindergarten and identifies a child as behind and below standards? It’s so very frustrating. I’ve been working on extending recess, and that’s a huge struggle. In short, how do we change the system?

    • Angela, thanks for your kind words. To be frank, each person in the system needs to do their healing work. Only then can they change the system in the way it needs to be changed – from the inside out. Until then, changes will be surface level and won’t address the root issues. I’ll be writing about this in an upcoming newsletter.

  8. It’s actually a great and helpful piece of information. I
    am glad that you simply shared this useful info with us.
    Please stay us up to date like this. Thank you for sharing.

  9. I like the helpful info you provide in your articles.
    I’ll bookmark your blog and check again here regularly.
    I’m quite certain I will learn many new stuff right here!
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  10. My brother recommended I might like this website.
    He used to be totally right. This post actually made my day.
    You can not imagine just how much time I had spent for this
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  11. I find this fascinating, particularly in light of my work with toddlers, 15 months-2years with autism red flags. They often have atypical interest/facility with numbers , letters, shapes and we often use that as a way to build their social communication skills. Any thoughts?

    • Hi Lynn, thanks for your thoughts. I don’t have any comments, but I wish you the best in your work and life!

    • Thanks Teresa, my experience is being trained as a therapist, particularly in the field of child / brain development, in working with clients helping them heal from childhood trauma, in presenting to parents and teachers internationally for over a decade on play and child development, and in doing my own healing work, perhaps the most important “training”. However, I was never a teacher or child care professional. Hope that helps! Thanks for your interest and kind words!

  12. Researchers are telling us that brain hemisphere dominance is a myth. What say you? I tried to follow the links to the research but the first one is dead.

  13. Thanks Vince! I am wanting to cite this paper and wondering how to reference it – is this a paper / website…? cheers

    • Elizabeth, this is only a website publication. Some, with express permission, have published this article following my clear guidelines and approval. You may quote this article, for instance a paragraph – a small amount, but the entire article cannot be reproduced in any way, again, without permission. You can reference the excerpt by mentioning my name and website. Thanks for asking.

  14. I teach kindergarten and am required to teach letter sounds, 50 sight words, reading fluency to a reading level d, sounds in words, number words, counting by one’s and tens up to one-hundred. These five, turning six-year-olds are required to take in so much information at such a young age. It is such a frustration to try to make these little minds that are physically unable to absorb all this information absorb this information. I try hard to do my part to bring as much play into our days as I can while following the required standards. I’m interested in compiling as much research as I can on early childhood development and early brain development. I will be adding this book to my list.

  15. Hi, very refreshing to read your article on the right brain, something that has been known among a small group of professional people and artists. Three members of my family are artists, I was married to one, and I must say that they struggle with linear thinking, being practical as much as they would like to be. One of my only two grandchildren who are very creative was diagnosed in second grade with ADHD by the ‘teacher’ and put on a medication by her pediatrician … the big Farma has allowed pediatricians to prescribe Ritalin now after taking a short course in ADHD condition… It was very sad to witness how my talented granddaughter suffered from insomnia lack of appetite and will to draw and do all the other creative things she used to enjoy doing. Long story, she went through very difficult adolescence many other drugs for depression and ADHD, attempted suicide and finally at 22 stop using all drugs and is trying to catch up with lost years being regulated by the Farma.
    My point is that we do not have the teachers and other educators that can or know how to handle children who are different, very creative and at times perhaps disruptive because they can not control their creative impulses. Ritalin is one of the most prescribed drugs for our children today. According to DR. Lavine who wrote a book, One Mind At The Time every brain is different and labeling children as so and so is very damaging to a child’s psyche. He ends his very important and informative book by saying ‘no mind should beg to be different’.

  16. Just SO many quotes from this that I want to re-post and remember forever. Beautifully written, wonderfully relateable and wonderful evidence for what we believe and know.

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