Scientific Disciplines Researching Play

Names of science disciplines overlayed on buildings of a university campus

On this page we summarize the broad range of play research conducted in universities around the world under the auspices of over twenty scientific disciplines. We identify some of the scientists working to understand the biological, psychological and social mechanisms that underlie the benefits of play in our everyday lives.

For simplicity, we’ve grouped this broad range of play research into three primary branches:

A computer model of a human brain showing the midbrain area, just above the brainstem.
Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp identified seven emotional systems in the midbrain. Play is one of them.

Neuroscience Research

Researchers in neuroscience have shown that play is built into the biology of all mammals.

Affective neuroscientists, who study how emotions work in the brain, have proven that humans are born with seven primary-process emotional systems, one of which is play. All of these emotional systems are pre-wired in the midbrain, the source of our most basic instincts and motivations.

When the play circuits in the midbrain are triggered, the related neurons create a cascade of activity in our higher brain functions. The more often this happens — the more often we play — the more those neurons connect and the stronger those pathways get. The neural connections created when we play are the brain wiring patterns that give us better control over our movement, our thoughts, and our emotions.

Disciplines NIFP Includes in the Neuroscience Branch: 

  • Affective neuroscience (how emotions function in the brain)
  • Behavioral neuroscience (the connections between brain function and behavior)
  • Biology
  • Developmental neuroscience (how our brains develop)
  • Evolutionary biology
  • Neuroanatomy

Key Neuroscience Findings About Play

  • Play is part of the neurobiology of all mammals.
  • Play is one of seven primary emotional systems pre-wired in the human brain.
  • The play circuits (or play system) in the midbrain are crucial to the wiring of the cortex (the upper brain) in the first years of life.
  • Play is so deeply rooted in the brain that it serves as a basic motivational drive.
  • Inadequate play leads to depression and can interfere with social and emotional development and learning.
An unhappy kindergartener daydreaming at his school desk while his teacher helps classmates.
Behavioral scientists who study play and learning have found that, especially for young children, play is crucial to academic engagement and achievement.

Behavioral Science Research

Behavioral Sciences is a broad area of scientific study generally focused on human behavior, cultures, and the mind. This category encompasses everyone from therapists to people who study childhood development, human evolution, and how we learn.

One of the disciplines in this branch that does a great deal of play research is educational psychology: the study of how humans learn, what helps us improve, and what makes learning harder. Studies in this field show that encouraging playful curiosity enhances learning outcomes.

In preschool, when play-based instruction is replaced with memorization and demand for measurable outcomes not in accord with the child’s engaged curiosity, the result is a negative experience for the child. Some children deprived of play in early instruction are more impulsive, have more behavior and emotional problems, and have more trouble getting along with their peers.

Over the long run, children who are able to play a lot before they start first grade outperform their peers who sat in teacher-led classrooms. The earlier kids start traditional schooling, the worse the damage.

Disciplines NIFP Includes in the Behavioral Sciences Branch:

  • Anthropology
  • Child development
  • Developmental psychology 
  • Educational psychology
  • Evolutionary psychology
  • Folklore & cultural history
  • Neuropsychoanalysis
  • Positive psychology
  • Psychiatry 
  • Sociology 

Key Behavioral Science Findings About Play 

A group of happy kids immersed in cooperative play with building blocks

In a world where information is doubling every few years, we need critical thinkers, we need creative innovators and we need children who have the confidence to learn from failure and to persevere so that they create new things and I think Play, the sandbox, incorporates all of these.

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek

Ethology Research

Ethology generally refers to systematic field observations of animal behavior in natural settings. However, observing humans engaged in play behavior in natural settings is a useful addition and fits the definition of ethology.

These researchers look at behavior in the field and ask why a behavior (in this case, play) exists, how it might have evolved, what function it plays, and how it helps animals or humans adapt and thrive.

A family of Alaskan brown bears.
Ethologist Robert Fagen studied brown bears in the Alaskan wilderness for many years; he found that bears that played more as cubs survived longer as adults.

Disciplines NIFP Includes in the Ethology Branch:

  • Ethology
  • Evolutionary biology
  • Paleo-anthropology
  • Primatology

Some Researchers in This Branch:

Marc Bekoff

Gordon Burghardt

Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt

Robert Fagen

Jane Goodall

Edward Norbeck

Elisabetta Palagi

Jan van Hooff

Key Ethology Findings About Play

  • Play is a product of evolution. The instinct to play began evolving millions of years ago and exists in the earliest mammals, as well as birds and some reptiles. It has persisted because it benefits each species.
  • All mammals are born with the instinct to play.
  • In the wild, the animals that are most playful in youth survive the longest as adults (PDF).
  • The larger the brain of a species, the more playful they are in their youth.
  • Dozens of mammal species — from humans and chimpanzees to dogs, cows, rats, and even some birds — laugh when they play.

I envision a future in which the the import of good play practices is as much a social imperative as good sleep and good nutrition practices.

Dr. Stuart Brown