Brain Science

Play to learn, learn to play


You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.


Learning through play is a given for children. Why do we have a hard time accepting “play” as an effective means of learning as adults?

It’s often dismissed as a waste of time. Research into the brains of animals with higher orders of intelligence reveals that many species continue to play beyond their youth. Play is one way to spread discoveries through social learning. In fact, some animals like rats and grizzly bears fail to properly develop socially without a healthy amount of play. 

In a Chief Learning Officer article, Andrea Park looks at problem solving through the lens of play, particularly gamification. She cites research by The Wharton School at the University of Philadelphia indicating there are eight steps to promote business success in workplace gamification:

Problem solving, exploration, teamwork, recognition, success, surprise and novelty, creativity and knowledge sharing.” She continues: “Interactive learning programs at millennial-friendly companies often provide examples of several, if not all, of these qualities.” Forbes has a list of helpful tips about how to use gaming at work as an effective strategy for motivating employees and changing behavior.   

Play is one of nature’s resources for generating new neural networks and reconciling cognitive difficulties, according to an article in US News. It’s not only a useful way to solve problems, but it also helps us build our creativity and social relationships, according to the National Institute for Play

Playfulness is part of our culture at Idea Learning Group. We developed Cafeteria Learning as a way to engage participants in play and interactive collaboration, while maintaining a focus on behavior change. In 2013, we facilitated a session called “Play to Learn: The Cafeteria Learning Model” at the North American Simulation and Gaming Association annual conference; we’ve also designed other learning solutions using this method on topics such as diversity and inclusion, processes, health and wellness, performance management, and other topics related to leadership development. 

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