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: Allan Ajifo/flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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 , , , , .

24 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.

  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

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